Al Kemp

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Bus Operator Alexander Kemp, who missed three months of work with the coronavirus, said the temporary vinyl curtain meant to protect him from riders poses two safety threats: it creates blind spots for a driver and the need to manually operate it means 'I am literally touching it 50 to 60 times a day,' increasing the chance of exposure to the virus.

As the MTA resumed front-door bus-boarding and charging fares Aug. 31, several postings from Bus Operators on social media cited serious concerns over one of the safety features designed to shield them from COVID-19.

They said that the vinyl curtains around their seat that were installed as an interim kind of barrier were actually obstructing their line of sight. In follow-up interviews, they also contended that despite the MTA's intention to protect them, the curtain could increase their risk of exposure to the virus that has killed 131 MTA colleagues.

'Curtain Slides Forward'

"If you are issued a bus with a vinyl curtain that slides forward on its own under normal operation, pull over the moment this happens and road-call your bus, this is a safety defect," read a social media post signed by three Transport Workers Union Local 100 shop stewards, Michael Enriquez, Danny Cruz and Alexander Kemp.

Other union officials expressed similar concerns.

J.P. Patafio, Local 100's vice president for buses, wrote in an email, "It can be an issue with the vinyl curtains, which are temporary, that are unavoidable on one level. We have made this complaint and put management on notice about this safety issue. If the curtain has a defect, we instruct the ops to take the bus out of service."

He added that "the long-term fix for this problem are the plexiglass extensions to be placed on all the buses, hopefully by the end of October."

In heralding the resumption of front-door boarding and fare collection, the MTA said it was "opening up 40 percent more space on buses for enhanced social distancing" and installing "innovative new barriers" including vinyl curtains as an interim solution while the agency retrofitted its more-than 5,800 buses with the plexiglass barriers.

Touts Safety Measures

"...We want customers and employees to know we are doing everything we can to keep them safe—from disinfecting our buses to mandating masks to installing protective barriers for our operators," said Sarah Feinberg, Interim President of New York City Transit. "We honor and respect our heroic front-line employees for everything they continue to do for our city."

Bus Operator Alexander Kemp works out of the Jackie Gleason Depot in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and survived a particularly tough 90-day battle with COVID-19. He exercised his right under the TWU Local 100 contract to take his bus out of service on Aug. 24 over safety concerns.

"With this vinyl curtain, there can be blind spots that your mirrors won't pick up, so it is your responsibility to see through the door because that is usually where a bike could come through, where people come out of car doors or cross in the middle of the street when you are at a red light," said the nine-year veteran.

But Mr. Kemp said that the chance of hitting a pedestrian or cyclist who crossed into his blind spot was only part of the problem with the interim solution.

Touching It Repeatedly

"The intended use of it is to slide this back and forth—you have to manually operate it every time you come to a stop to block yourself from people coming in and directly spitting on you and slide it back when you are about to pull away after you close the doors," he said. "That means I am literally touching it 50 to 60 times a day. Now, the intended purpose of this plastic vinyl barrier is to catch COVID...and every time I move it I am turning it to myself, and you can be sure at some point in the day it will touch my person."

Mr. Kemp said his concerns were heightened by his life-altering bout with the coronavirus.

"Literally, I was almost dying," he recalled. "I was out of work for three months and COVID 19-ravaged me. I was extremely sick and moments away from the ultimate fate."

The MTA and the TWU confirmed the interim solution got a preliminary sign-off from both sides, but union sources said as soon as they spotted defects in the actual installation, they advised members to exercise their right to not drive a bus they felt was unsafe.

 Prematurely Collecting?

Mr. Kemp maintains that the MTA should have held off on fare-collection and front-door boarding until it had retrofitted the entire fleet with the plexiglass barrier. "You are saying you are so broke, you could cut service by 40 why spend any money on an interim solution that doesn't work?" he asked.

Mr. Kemp, who is 6'4 and 280 pounds, had to demonstrate a couple of times to his supervisors and "MTA transit scholars" how in his case, with his seat all the way back, the vinyl curtains obstructed his view.

Ultimately, he prevailed and was given the assignment of taking out-of-service buses to Grand Avenue Depot so they could be retrofitted with the plexiglass barriers, then bringing them back to Gleason.

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