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The life of a transit worker was never easy in the United States. Then along came coronavirus. To enable the livelihoods of other essential workers, thousands of bus drivers, track repairers, yard masters, cleaners and others are still showing up to their jobs amid the pandemic.
But the death toll among the ranks of front-line public transportation workers, who are considered part of the “essential workforce” in most U.S. cities, suggests they are acutely vulnerable to the virus. In New York City, 50 MTA workers have died as of April 13, more than triple the combined mortality rates of the New York City police and fire departments so far. A memorial page by the Amalgamated Transit Union shows that at least of 16 working members have died in other cities, including Boston, Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. The Transport Workers Union has stated that at least seven of its members have died and that hundreds more have tested positive for the virus.
As transit workers sicken, union leaders now warn that drastic actions may be necessary, including work stoppages. While local chapters would need to decide individually if and where specific tactics are needed, “federal law recognizes that workers on the transit side should not be retaliated against for refusing to work when there is a hazardous safety condition,” said Larry Willis, the president of the Transportation Trades Department, a labor organization that represents 32 transportation-related unions, including the Amalgamated Transit Union and Transport Workers Union. “And currently, there is.”
Even under normal conditions, city bus drivers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations, between vehicle crashes, belligerent passengers, and the grind of physical labor. Now coronavirus tops that litany of risks. Among U.S. workers, bus drivers rank in the 78th percentile for being in close physical proximity to others, which means they are highly exposed to infectious disease, a New York Times analysis found.
A tragic illustration of the problem came in a recent headline about a Detroit bus driver who died from coronavirus just days after complaining about a passenger coughing on him. “Obviously, we’re being overexposed here,” John Costa, the president of ATU International, said in a video posted to Facebook on Friday.
Many workers also say that they do not feel adequately protected by their employers. Kenshun Keaton, a switch operator at the Chicago Transit Authority, where one shop machinist has died of coronavirus and several workers have tested positive for the disease, said last Tuesday that he and his colleagues had not received personal protective equipment beyond globes and hand sanitizer at that time, and that they were bringing in their own cleaning materials to disinfect trains and work areas.
This article first appeared on www.citylab.com
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