The unions that represent the workers who run the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) commuter railroad connecting New York and New Jersey are pressing for testing for COVID19, hazard pay and a death benefit after losing one of their own to the virus last month.
Robert Elijiah, 61, worked for PATH as a Power Rail Mechanic for 19 years and was a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 864. He died April 23 of the coronavirus, leaving behind his wife, three children and 12 grandchildren.
Long Time Without Raise
Local 864 is one of eight PATH unions working under contracts that expired in 2011 and 2012, without a raise since. Earlier this year, several hundred workers turned out for an informational picket at PATHS's Grove Street station in Jersey City. The unions are covered under the National Railway Labor Act and their contracts don't lapse,remaining in effect until a new pact is reached.
"Both sides are continuing to work toward new contracts, and we are hopeful of reaching a resolution soon," wrote Scott Ladd, a Port Authority spokesman.
On Dec. 12, Mr. Elijiah spoke forcefully at the Port Authority board's monthly meeting, demanding that the agency offer a "fair contract" for "dedicated employees." He said PATH workers had been 9/11 first-responders along with the Port Authority Police and the Fire Department and then in 2013 during Super Storm Sandy put themselves at risk when they "dove into three feet of water" to drain the flooded system.
He reminded the Port Authority Commissioners of the occupational dangers of working underground in PATH's rail tunnels, where workers were exposed to chromium, steel dust, and asbestos. "If I die from something that affects me from working on this doggone railroad, who wants to tell my grandchildren?" he asked.
'Pneumonia, Blood Clots'
According to the PATH unions, COVID-19 represents yet another serious hazard that can be disabling even when not deadly and also puts their families at risk.
"We have several of our members have been hospitalized with COVID-19," said Joseph Dominiczak, president of the Railway Independent Transit Union and the PATH Labor Council. "Some of our members have pneumonia. Another, in his late 20s or early 30s, has blood clots in his legs and lungs and can't walk. He was a General Maintainer who was disinfecting the trains."
He said that quite a few PATH union members who were part of the 9/11 World Trade Center response and recovery effort have developed ailments including cancer, making them particularly vulnerable to COVID19.
Rich Clark, president of the Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen, said in a phone interview that at one point, 29 of his 64 members were quarantined during the pandemic.
"We are the red-headed stepchild of transit agencies," he said. "We have Murphy talking about NJ Transit and Cuomo talking about the MTA, Metro-North and the LIRR, and nobody mentions PATH."
Mr. Clark said that through a family connection to the FDNY, he was able to find a supplier for personal protective equipment for the railroad. "I facilitated getting 105,000 masks, and now PATH has been handing out a supply of PPE on a weekly basis," he said.
He continued, "Management is usually slow on safety, and it takes the unions to get things done...Like with the testing we need for all of our members who could be sick and not know it and be bringing it back to their families."
Art Blakey, grandson of the jazz artist, leads PATH's Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. He said that when it came to COVID-19 workplace protections, unions couldn't take "no" for an answer.
'Got to Stay After It'
"If you don't get it the first time, you got to keep trying and be persistent, because if you don't stay after it, they will let it go," he said. "That's how we got the front car closed off for the crew. We asked for it in March and got it in April."
Mr. Blakey said that the regional shelter-in-place orders in place in New Jersey and New York produced a spike in the number of homeless riding PATH trains. "There are even more homeless on the train now---20 to 30 on a train," he said during a phone interview. "That's another path of potential exposure for our members."
The years without a new contract, he said, leave his members "trying to pay 2020 bills with 2010 money."
Carlton William is general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which represents PATH Conductors. "Our discussions are ongoing, and testing is at the top of our list," he said. "We are deeply concerned by the exposure our Conductors have with being face-to-face with customers. We have been designated as essential workers but we must be treated as such."
At the April 23 Port Authority public meeting, Rick Cotton, the agency's executive director, said that keeping the bi-state agency's workforce healthy during the pandemic was of "paramount importance."
At that time, 354 employees were self-quarantining, down from 700 a few weeks earlier. About 1,300 had returned to work, while 3,000 were still working remotely. Four agency employees were still hospitalized.
Mr. Cotton said that PATH daily commuter traffic was down by 95 percent and the agency was being vigilant about enforcing social distancing by monitoring platform conditions. "The front car on all trains used by our engineers and conductors is now set aside as a safety measure for the train crew," he said.
"We have tried to address the health and mental health of our employees," he said. "We have waived all out-of-pocket expenses for testing and treatment related to coronavirus."