NEW YORK (AP) — While many Americans are cloistered inside their homes, transit workers are out there making sure that other essential workers can get to their jobs. But they often lack the masks or gloves they need to protect themselves from riders crowding onto buses and trains.
The situation is so dire that Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove took to Facebook on March 21 to express anger about a passenger who coughed repeatedly on the bus without covering her mouth. A few days later, Hargrove fell ill and died from COVID-19 on April 2.
Thousands of transit workers have been infected and dozens have died from the fast-spreading disease, according to John Costa, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the largest labor union representing transit and allied workers in the U.S. and Canada.
Costa, who started working for New Jersey Transit as a janitor at age 18, has been pushing the federal government to provide personal protective equipment to transit workers. He said his union members are at risk because they are continuously exposed to dozens of riders at close range without adequate gear to keep them safe.
The Federal Transit Administration said it made $25 billion available to transit agencies through the relief bill recently passed by Congress, which can be used to get protective gear or pay for time off. But like everyone else, transit officials have been unable to find enough gear.
Costa spoke with The Associated Press about the problem. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Members of your union have lost their lives to the coronavirus. How has this affected you?
A: It’s hard. It’s a family. It’s hitting home. This is not what we signed up for. We’re bus operators and maintenance, and we can’t work from home. It’s scary, and at the same time sad, that our members are trying to make a living and also provide a service that is essential, but not being provided the equipment that is needed. And they’re not even on the list for them, because they’re not first responders, but yet they move first responders every day and at the same time could be infecting them.
Q: Do transit workers have adequate personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves?
A: I believe government lied and told us we didn’t need it. You have the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) saying we don’t need masks, and now all of a sudden all of us should be wearing masks. It came too late, and I believe our operators have been overexposed. Your buses are overcrowded, you have some people are wearing masks, others aren’t. That’s exposure that our operators are getting more than everyone else.
Q: Why are transit workers at greater risk?
A: We talk about social distance. There’s none on a bus. Even though we’re blocking off some of the seats behind the driver, there’s still overcrowding. Everybody is on top of each other. That should not be. Nobody should ride a bus without a mask at this point. We’ve got to start to monitor how many people can be on a bus, if we’re going to keep it going for essential services.
Q: Are any members getting personal protective equipment (PPE) from the federal government?
A: No. Many of our members, a lot of locals, went around and got what they could, and some of the locals provided their own equipment as far as gloves and masks to our members.
Q: When you ask the federal government for protective gear, what’s the response?
A: We do have some lawmakers that are starting to push, and believe we are essential. Some are looking to pay workers a hazard pay. But as far as the PPEs, we haven’t had straight answers from anyone yet, and that’s one of the concerns of our members. How much longer is this going to continue, and how many more people have to die before we say, that’s it? We understand what our essential job is, but at the same time, we didn’t sign up to die.
It’s a shame. We’re recognizing grocery workers. We’re recognizing, rightfully so, the medical profession out there that’s doing a hell of a job risking their lives for us, and the police and fire, but nobody says nothing about the transit worker and the transportation guys that are out there moving the economy, moving the bodies to go to work. Just remember them. They’re out there, they have families too, and you know what? We’re dying.