MTA, union say federal guidance on contagion needs overhaul after COVID-19 deaths

An uptown 1 train at the 125th Street station.
Photo by Mark Hallum

After transportation workers have suffered disproportionately from coronavirus, the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO is calling on the federal government to update guidelines disregarded by the MTA after the body count ran high.

This call comes as the MTA announced Monday morning that more of their employees are back at work from mandatory quarantine than are out sick, something which has hobbled their efforts to increase service over the past few weeks, as explained by Chair Pat Foye.

In the past week, the agency has seen trip cancellations due to crew shortages fall to about 13%, down from a peak of 40%. About 5,033 workers are back at it, but 4,112 MTA workers are still off the job on COVID-19 related basis.

The MTA initially followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines advising against workers wearing masks unless sick and later adjusting its own policy. An agency spokesman told amNewYork. Metro has upped the line of duty death benefit for it’s workers to $500,000 and says they support federally funded hazard pay.

“As the largest mass transit agency in North America, the MTA has led the nation in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including breaking with the federal government and recommending face coverings for all employees and customers before the CDC reversed course and did the same,” an MTA spokesman said.

Now, the TTD is telling the federal Departments of Labor and Transportation step in to provide guidance for transit employees with uniform standards.

“While these working Americans are risking their lives, they are being let down by their federal government,” the letter stated. “Measures that have been proven to save lives, including full deployment of personal protective equipment (PPE)—including protective levels of respiratory protection—adequate cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and policies to ensure social distancing in the workplace have not been universally mandated or implemented.”

The TTD said leadership would be needed on the part of the Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia to standardize contagion efforts across the nation.

The TTD is a coalition of 32 unions including the Transport Workers Union Local 100 which is the main source of representation in the state transit system.

“Your leadership is needed to ensure that frontline transportation workers are provided with vocation-specific PPE as well as clear and concise guidance for personal and public protection,” the letter continued. ‘Across every mode of transportation, we have received consistent reports from workers that they do not have the proper types and adequate amounts of PPE they need to be safe and to help prevent the spread of the disease.”

Transit workers have been disproportionately hit by the COVID-19 crisis with 68 deaths mostly in the ranks of New York City Transit frontline workers as of Saturday.

In the letter signed by TTD President Larry Willis, the organization also asks the two agencies to back major legislation that would ensure paid sick leave for workers who are either sick, potentially exposed to COVID19 or caring for a family members who is ill.