Even maintaining scaled-back bus and subway service is increasingly a challenge for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as its entire workforce feels the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Transport Workers Union Local 100, nine of its members have died from COVID-19. Two members of the Subway Surface Supervisors Association have died as well.
4,000 MTA Staff Quarantined
As of April 2, the MTA confirmed that more than 600 employees had tested positive and that 3,049 people employed by NYC Transit were in quarantine, with at least another 1,000 who work for its commuter railroads and Bridges and Tunnels division in quarantine.
Five days earlier, it was disclosed that MTA CEO Patrick Foye had tested positive for the virus and was working remotely from his home as he began his 14-day quarantine.
Both management and union officials have expressed frustration with the lack of public compliance with the state's social-distancing mandate and the number of New Yorkers who are still moving around although they are not are part of the essential workforce.
"You are quite literally potentially risking the lives of your friends, loved ones and your own family ones and our workers," said Sarah E. Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit. "If you want to be a patriot, if you want to be part of New York surviving this crisis, if you want to be part of the solution, then please, stay home."
Union members were singled out for praise by Governor Cuomo April 3: "The transit workers have a very high rate of illness and are, by the way, doing such heroic work."
Two days earlier he had ordered the city to close all of its playgrounds, citing a lack of compliance with the state's social-distancing order designed to slow the spread of the virus and reduce the strain on the state's hospital system.
Sick Leave Slows Trains
"We are running an essential-service plan, basically between a Saturday and weekday service [roughly 70 percent], but because of the crew shortages, we are only hitting 60 to 65 percent of service," Ms. Feinberg said in a phone interview.
"We have a lot of operators going out sick and we have a lot of operators quarantined and it is disrupting the ability to maintain a schedule," said J.P. Patafio, TWU Local 100 vice president for buses. "If you have 10 people on a line and three of them are sick, you are going to have a schedule that's not working and leads to overcrowding."
In a phone interview, he said efforts by the MTA to mitigate the potential COVID-19 exposure of Bus Operators by making riders enter through the rear door also added to crowding.
"When we limited access to the rear door, we effectively cut the passenger-carrying capacity by 25 percent while we maintained the social-distancing for our drivers," he said. "The problem is that in some places in the city, people haven't gotten the message about social-distancing, and also people need to get to work."
'Limit Your Travel'
On its website, the MTA urged the public to limit mass-transit use to "essential business, or for urgent personal business like a medical appointment. We need to keep our limited capacity available for people who must travel."
When reports on social media surfaced a month ago that Local 100 members were being threatened with sanctions for wearing face masks on the job, union officials pushed back and advocated for PPE for their members.
After the death of Peter Petrassi, 49, the first MTA employee to die from COVID-19, Local 100 President Tony Utano reiterated his demand that the MTA issue masks and gloves as well as provide priority COVID-19 testing for its members.
On March 27, the MTA announced the distribution of 75,000 masks, which were supplemented with tens of thousands of additional masks over the next few days by TWU's international union. A few days later the agency upped its number to 240,000.
Mr. Utano has consistently been describing the deaths of Local 100 members from the COVID19 as "line-of-duty, equivalent to any number of ways that have struck down transit workers in years past."
Masks for All?
On March 30, on MSNBC Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a former top public-health adviser to President Obama, said anyone out in public should wear masks, notwithstanding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that healthy people did not need them.
The Washington Post reported March 31, that even as the debate heated up about the value of masks within the CDC and the Trump Administration, "there's still no consensus in the scientific community" on their usefulness in public.
Ms. Feinberg said that conflicting CDC and medical guidance was problematic for both the public and managers who are responsible for keeping employees safe.
"It has really been a moving target," she said. "It is incredibly frustrating."
On April 2, Local 100 urged the MTA to strongly recommend riders cover their noses and mouths with bandannas or scarves while riding if they do not have masks, suggesting it should be made a requirement "if there isn't voluntary compliance."
'A Common-Sense Move'
"This is a common-sense move that will prevent the spread of the virus and could ease the concerns of both transit workers and riders," Mr.Utano said.
In a letter to Patrick Warren, Chief Safety Officer for the MTA, several activist Local 100 members suggested that if the agency was not willing to shut down the system, it needed to be sure that MTA workers had protective equipment.
In addition, they called for strict occupancy limits on the subways and buses, as well as the enforcement of social distancing protocols in crew rooms and at worksites.
They also called for the state to come up with a system for credentialing members of the essential workforce, like first-responders, health-care workers, and utility personnel as a way to further control who used mass transit.
The proposal was signed by Andrew Maetke, Seth Rosenberg, John Ferretti, Anthony Steiniger, Tom Gruttemeyer, Umberto Rodrigues, and Charlie Muniz.
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