The union representing more than 4,000 Metropolitan Transportation Authority Supervisors who oversee bus, subway and maintenance-of-way operations said that its members are increasingly apprehensive about working during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mike Carrube, president of the Subway Surface Supervisors Association, told this newspaper that the MTA has a moral obligation to provide transit workers, including his members, with personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.
"A lot of our members are very concerned," he said. "They are saying to us 'I don't want to come to work. I don't want to be around that [potential COIVD19 exposure]. I have a parent at home that is sick, or I have a child at home that is sick. I don't want to bring this kind of virus home to them.' "
Public-health officials say that one of the most alarming characteristics of COVID-19 is that people who have been infected can be asymptomatic, showing no signs of the virus, yet pass it on to friends and family who may have a pre-existing condition for which exposure could prove fatal.
MTA CEO Patrick Foye, who later tested positive for the virus, said in an interview on WPIX-TV March 23 that the agency was working closely with Governor Cuomo's coronavirus task force and was committed to providing masks to its entire MTA workforce.
"There is a worldwide shortage of ventilators, gloves and masks," he said. "Governor Cuomo has unleashed literally a war effort to increase the number of ventilators in New York City, in New York State hospitals. Same thing with respect to gloves and masks."
He continued, "Our workers at this point are allowed to wear gloves and masks, and as soon as that shortage is addressed...we have committed to union leadership that we will distribute masks" to them.
During the Governor's March 24 briefing at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, he spoke in front of what appeared to be dozens of boxes of PPE equipment, which he told reporters were earmarked for distribution to front-line health-care workers.
The previous week, Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano said the situation was "serious and upsetting," urging transit workers not to panic but saying it was urgent that the MTA arrange for expedited testing 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."
Mr. Carrube echoed Mr. Utano's concerns and urged the MTA to let the union know the status of the workforce and which workplaces were undergoing cleaning as a result of a potential COVID-19 issue.
A Need to Know
The SSSA president acknowledged the MTA had to be respectful of the health-care privacy rights of employees but said the union needed a list of the depots and worksites where COVID-19 was being addressed.
He asked members to email the union with their own updates so union staff could effectively advocate for them with management. "We have the union hall still open with a very light staff, so we would prefer the members email us to know if they are self-quarantining or have the virus," he said.
Mr. Carrube also called upon the MTA to expand its employee COVID-19 health hotline, which is staffed with nurses who take calls from employees looking for guidance on how to deal with issues the virus is presenting them and their families.
"The problem with the health line is that you can't even get through and people are calling for hours upon hours," he said.
A source at the MTA said that the agency hoped to address that problem quickly. "Employees should take some comfort that when they do get through to us, they do get a highly individualized and comprehensive health survey," the source said.
After Mr. Cuomo declared a state of emergency March 8, the MTA lifted its prohibition against transit workers wearing surgical masks as a precaution while on duty, a ban Local 100 had vigorously fought.
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