Some 27,000 MTA employees — more than a third of its workforce — still do not have a record of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, according to transit leaders, as the agency prepares to make its voluntary shot-or-test regime mandatory next month.
That’s 38.8% of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 69,502-strong workforce as of Sept. 10, and MTA board members scolded the agency for the lagging inoculations eight months into vaccines being available for transit workers.
“I think these vaccination rates, in my opinion, are a disservice at this point,” said Neal Zuckerman at the MTA’s Safety Committee meeting on Sept. 13. “I am concerned for their own safety, their families’ safety, and frankly, I’m concerned for our customers’ safety.”
Vaccination rates vary by agency within the MTA, with the New York City Transit — which runs the city’s subways and buses – registering the lowest percentage at 55%, while Construction and Development topped the list at 89%, according to MTA Chief Safety Officer Pat Warren.
Another board member noted the return of public schools this week will put children younger than 12-years-old, who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines, at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
“I was on the subways during rush hour this morning and there were numerous little kids with their parents going to the first day of school. One thing you know for sure is everyone of those kids is not vaccinated,” said Bob Linn. “It’s just not acceptable that we’re exposing those kids to workers who are not vaccinated. … I felt absolutely terrified for those children, who because of other people exercising their view of freedom were exposing those children to potential mortal sickness.”
Transit workers were among the earliest in the state to be eligible for the vaccinations in January, and the virus hit MTA hard, killing 171 employees since the beginning of the outbreak last year.
The average daily COVID case rate for MTA has risen from one to about 17 and quarter of new infections are among employees who are vaccinated, but they have shown either mild or no symptoms, said Warren.
Prior to his Aug. 23 resignation, ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all state workers, including MTA and Port Authority employees, will have to get vaccinated or face weekly testing by Labor Day. The MTA pushed back the mandate until Oct. 12, and has started offering the nasal swabs and saliva tests on Sept. 7 on a voluntary basis for now.
Transit gurus have opened up more than 120 test sites on MTA property and conducted 1,432 swabs within the first week.
Warren noted that there was still a large section of the workforce whose vaccination status is unclear and about 15-20% of employees have gotten inoculated at other outposts not run by the state agency, like pharmacies and sites operated by local governments, and have not told MTA about their vaccination status.
An MTA board member representing a labor union of the Long Island Rail Road — which also came in low at a 57% vaccination rate — cautioned against stricter vaccine mandates, saying some workers might quit if they have to get the shot, further exacerbating the current transit worker shortages.
“We’re all for the testing and taking precautions that are necessary. What we also have to understand is that there’s a very large amount… there are plenty of our workers in the field that do not want to be vaccinated,” said Vincent Tessitore. “We have to be careful, because we’re receiving plenty of feedback that, you know, they would leave the job if it came to that, and that’s concerning to me because we are already challenged right now with manpower counts across the agency, struggling to fill positions.”
The MTA’s Warren said in a follow-up statement that the agency is committed to getting its staff inoculated.
“Getting the workforce vaccinated is and has been a priority for the MTA since the vaccines became available as it is the most effective way to protect oneself and those around you from COVID-19,” said Warren. “We just introduced a program that calls for mandatory vaccinations or testing, which will strengthen our efforts.”