The COVID-19-linked deaths of dozens of Transport Workers Union Local 100 members who worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have been linked in news reports to the prevalence of pre-existing conditions like asthma and heart disease, all chronic diseases that afflict millions of Americans but disproportionately affect people of color.
As of April 13, more than 30 members of Local 100 and 11 transit supervisors were among 50-plus MTA deaths.
In addition to the higher percentage of such co-morbidities among racial minorities, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that across the country the proportion of people of color employed in urban mass transit is much higher than their representation in society as a whole.
According to the BLS, African-Americans make up 31.4 percent of the transit workforce, with Latinos comprising 18.7 percent.
Something in the Air
But John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union International, asserted that the most-important factor is the serious occupational issues related to workplace air quality for transit workers that makes them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
"We breathe in diesel [fumes] every day," he said. "We breathe in steel dust every single day. We breathe in manganese from all the welding that goes on in the subway."
He continued, "We breathe in creosote that they soak the railroad ties in to preserve them. These are carcinogens and they directly affect the lungs, and this is why so many transit workers die of lung disorders. And COVID-19 attacks the lungs. It is more the work environment than it has to do with any demographics of the workforce."
Mr. Samuelsen said that the COVID-19 death toll for transit workers raised the question of whether the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's workforce should have been wearing masks even before the crisis.
'Known Human Carcinogen'
According to Safety & Health, the magazine of the National Safety Council, diesel exhaust contains diesel particulate matter that, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, "includes soot particles made up primarily of carbon, ash, metallic abrasion particles, sulfates and silicates."
Eight years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer—part of the World Health Organization—classified diesel exhaust as a "known human carcinogen."
"Short-term exposure to high concentrations of diesel exhaust and diesel particulate matter can result in dizziness; headaches; and eye, nose and throat irritation, the agency states," reported Safety & Health. "Prolonged exposure can increase a worker's risk of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, and lung cancer."
None of this is news to Dorota Nigro.
Ms. Nigro, 65, lost her husband Anthony, 57, a member of Local 100, to inoperable stage 4 lung cancer in January 2012, five months after he retired as a bus mechanic at the Michael J. Quill Bus Depot.
In a book she wrote with Chris Moore entitled "Not Just a Number," she recounted her husband's chronic cough that he described "as a tickle in his throat" for which they spent months trying to get a diagnosis.
'A Tickle in His Throat'
"He was never able to undergo chemo because his cough was dry and he could not lay down," Ms. Nigro said in a phone interview. "I documented everything in case I dropped dead."
The couple spent months seeking a definitive medical opinion to explain Anthony's rapidly deteriorating condition. Ms. Nigro said it wasn't until they met with Dr. Leonard Kessler, an oncologist in Rockville Centre, that they got some answers.
"I had sent him all of Anthony's medical records and when we sat down with him I was just shocked with what he said to us as soon as he walked in with the case files: 'You girl, get yourself a good lawyer,' " she recalled. "He told me what my husband had was related to the environment" from his career-long exposure to diesel fumes.
Ms. Nigro noted that her husband had stopped smoking in 1990 when she was expecting the first of their two children.
In 2014, she reached a settlement with the MTA, ensuring she would continue to get Anthony's pension.
Why It Matters
The reality of occupationally linked premature deaths for Local 100 members has always loomed large in the union's battles over the age of retirement and health-care benefits for members.
"We had to fight tooth and nail when the Tier Six came, which it never should have, to hold on to our age-55 retirement," Mr. Samuelsen said. "There were folks that were trying to raise our retirement age to 62-63, even 65 if some of them had their way."
He continued, "We launched a major fight in Albany to hold on to that age 55 retirement. Imagine how many transit workers we would be dead right now if we lost the age 55 retirement with the Tier 6 reform."
In addition to the well-documented occupational hazards from the air in subway tunnels and bus depots, thousands of Local 100 members were exposed to the toxic air in lower Manhattan in the months after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.
'Should Get Pensions at 50'
Looking forward, Mr. Samuelsen said, the COVID-19 toll on Local 100 members illustrated "why transit workers should be able to retire at 50 like we could under Tier 1 when we had a 20-50 pension."
As the city and nation struggle with the pandemic, both union and management officials believe the "new normal" must include a heightened awareness of the inherent risks essential workers take every day.
Sarah Feinberg, the Interim President of New York City Transit, was raised in southern West Virginia coal country, where the union movement first flagged the occupational health risks for miners that sparked the enactment of health protections and compensation programs for that workforce.
"The goal has to be keeping workers safe. That includes now, in the short term, in the long term, and for the rest of their lives," she said. "Any potential risk factor that impacts our workforce is worth exploring and understanding to the fullest."
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.