The union representing 4,000 workers at King County Metro Transit, and thousands more across North America, issued demands Thursday for hazard pay and tighter enforcement of social distancing, to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
Ken Price, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 in Seattle, issued a bulletin that calls for a $2 hourly wage boost, retroactive to early March and continuing until Gov. Jay Inslee lifts the statewide stay-at-home order.
That echoes this week’s demand by ATU International President John Costa that essential transit workers be paid a 50% wage premium. Locally, Metro General Manager Rob Gannon last month designated transit workers “first responders” instructed to report for duty, unless they’re ill or in a high-risk category, such as being older than 60.
Metro should require passengers to wear masks, Price said, by having security guards tell people “No mask, no ride,” supplemented by public-address warnings.
Price’s memo specifically cites a need locally for mandatory mask use by “non-destination riders.”
Both the union and County Executive Dow Constantine have mentioned this dilemma, when some routes carry so many homeless riders at night, there’s no longer a six-foot separation.
Transit driver Eric Stark, who survived a bullet wound to drive passengers to safety in Lake City last year, says he has met online with Metro and union leaders to suggest reduced operating hours, or a reservation-only system after 9:30 p.m. to serve essential night-shift medical, grocery or maintenance workers. Intercity Transit in the Olympia area has adopted reservation-only pickups all day.
The city and county should increase housing supply, and send outreach workers to buses to offer people a safe place to stay, said Metro operator Linda Averill, at a news briefing last week by Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity.
Costa’s letter calls for a 10-rider limit, similar to quotas of 12 people on short buses or 18 on articulated buses, discussed by Metro and the Seattle local. Price’s letter insists drivers be empowered to perform “drop off only mode” once a bus hits safety limits.
Metro has reacted to the epidemic gradually, first by spraying buses with sanitizer daily, then suspending fare enforcement, and cordoning the front of buses to reduce driver exposure. Metro on Saturday began distributing washable cloth masks, two per worker.
Metro on Thursday asked the public to voluntarily wear masks and avoid nonessential trips. Boardings are down 70%, while one-third of workers are sidelined, the agency says.
“Metro is redeploying security personnel to conduct safety rides, address security incidents, and educate customers on how to ride responsibly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” spokesman Jeff Switzer said.
Barring people from riding, if they’re not wearing masks, “brings its own set of challenges that we must also consider as we provide public transportation,” he said.
Stark worries about a repeat of Philadelphia, where police were video-recorded pulling a man without a mask off a bus. King County will avoid that scene through lax enforcement, he predicted.
Stark said Metro sounds receptive to some ideas, but more should be done, such as blocking some rows of seats, and supplying higher-grade N95 masks. “I’m seeing a lot of talk, but not a lot of action when it comes to the social distancing stuff,” he said.
The international ATU, representing workers at 600 agencies, called for free coronavirus testing and full personal protective equipment.
Seattle’s Local 587 follows a no-strike contract, but Price said he will ask the business community, state labor and elected leaders, and the Seattle Transit Riders Union for support. “We will not strike, we will not leave behind the blind folks and the disabled, or anyone that rides a bus,” he said.
Price mentioned hearing three reports of transit operators spit upon last weekend, “so anxieties are really high.”
Costa’s letter said at least 400 union members in North America have tested positive for coronavirus, and 18 have died. Those include Scott Ryan of Everett-based Community Transit.