The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said March 19 that there had been a spike in coronavirus cases in the system, with 19 New York City Transit employees and four from the Long Island Rail Road testing positive for the disease as of the previous day.
MTA Chairman Patrick J. Foye said in a statement, "These individuals are in quarantine or receiving appropriate care. As we have said, this is not unexpected as testing continues to ramp up, which will help contain the spread of the virus."
Working With Health Dept.
He added, "The MTA is working closely with the state Department of Health to identify any colleagues who come in contact with employees who are confirmed, send them home to self-quarantine, provide access to necessary testing and immediately and aggressively disinfect the workplace."
The MTA is disinfecting stations twice daily, and trains and buses on a daily basis.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano called the numbers "serious and upsetting," urging transit workers not to panic but saying it was urgent that the MTA arrange for expedited testing of employees and take additional steps to protect them.
"There is a lot of concern and even fear out there, but they are doing their jobs," he said of his members. "Symptomatic transit workers should not have to wait days upon days for test results or be denied testing for any reason. The MTA has to identify any transit workers with the virus to prevent them from spreading it to their co-workers."
Earlier in the week, Interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg said in a statement, "We continue to run trains and the buses so that these folks can get where they need to be. We are constantly evaluating our service levels to ensure we have enough capacity for those who need it."
'On the Front Lines'
Mr. Utano had said then, "Local 100 is on the front lines of helping to halt the spread of the coronavirus--which requires that our members report to work as scheduled. Our first-responders must have a way to get to their work locations, as public transit is the most reliable way for them to arrive safely."
In an alert to all Local 100 members, he announced union meetings were canceled for the remainder of March and April, in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance promoting social distancing and limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people. The CDC subsequently advised that the limit be reduced to 10 people.
In her systemwide advisory, Ms. Feinberg wrote, if "you can stay home, you should stay home. If you're able to work from home, please do so."
'Take Care of Yourselves'
She continued, "If you don't need to go out, please don't. Please continue to follow [health experts] advice on all fronts: take care of yourselves, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer, don't touch your face, and if you start to feel unwell, contact your doctor."
The MTA issued a follow-up advising all "customers and colleagues" to observe a "strict protocol" including not spending "more than a few moments within six feet of others, as well as avoiding "sharing rides in vehicles."
The authority asked workers to "not congregate in break rooms" and to take turns in confined spaces like restrooms.
Local 100 officials were monitoring closely the commitments made by Mayor de Blasio in a citywide alert March 15 regarding the close of public schools for five weeks pledged that by March 23 "the City will provide supervision of health-care workers, first-responders and transit workers" at designated local public schools.
Scare for Flight Crew
Throughout the nation, unions representing first-responders and workers in the health-care and transit sectors were pressing managers for details about efforts to safeguard their members.
The TWU of America, whose 150,000 members include thousands in the airline industry, March 12 had to intervene on behalf of a flight crew for Jet Blue, according to the Daily News, that refused orders to go right back to work after removing a passenger who disclosed to them after the plane landed that he had the coronavirus.
As reported by The News, a Long Island man flew from New York to Florida while he had a test pending for the coronavirus. Upon landing in West Palm Beach, he got a call informing him he had tested positive.
"Our crew facilitated the passenger's removal in a very sophisticated way that limited everyone's potential exposure out the back door of the plane with the help of medical professionals that escorted him off the flight," TWU International President John Samuelsen told this newspaper. "But the crew was ordered back to work by the air carrier to crew up another flight, and they rightfully refused because they knew they were now potentially carriers of the virus."
He added, "They were still in shock and understandably concerned about their own health, and when they were ordered to get back on another flight, they said no. The carrier had said the crew could work because they were asymptomatic, and that's when the union stepped in."
In short order, Mr. Samuelsen recounted, after the union's intervention, elected officials called the airline, as did a reporter from The News.
"We negotiated a package for the crew that guaranteed their economic security with paid sick leave," he said in a phone interview. "In the process of doing what was right by our members, we helped preserve the public health, which was the original goal of the flight crew. Without the union, we would have had another few planeloads of hundreds of unsuspecting members of the public exposed to the virus."