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64% of transit agencies unprepared for COVID-19, ATU survey finds

Transit agencies must implement critical health, safety, and economic measures to protect workers and riders

Silver Spring, MD – With thousands of COVID-19 infections and more than 160 deaths among transit workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) — the largest transportation union in North America — is releasing results of a survey that showed most transit agencies were unprepared for the crisis and that many have since failed to implement critical health, safety, and economic measures that it says could “save lives today and our transit systems tomorrow.”

“Since the coronavirus pandemic began, we knew our members were being exposed to the virus, dying due to entirely preventable infections, and laid off without regard for their heroic service,” said ATU International President John Costa, whose Union to date has lost 41 members to COVID-19. “Our survey is snapshot of the health of transit workers and the systems they operate, and it reveals the dangerous consequences of the failure of employers to implement emergency safety protections and economic policies,” Costa continued.

“This virus isn’t going anywhere,” Costa said. “As jurisdictions reopen prematurely, it’s critical that our employers and governments listen to what we’ve learned so far from the first wave and right these wrongs so that more lives aren’t lost, and rider confidence doesn’t disappear forever after the second wave hits.” 

On April 13, Costa sent a letter to every transit agency laying out a set of ten Safe Service demands, including distributing personal protective equipment to all frontline and maintenance workers, instituting daily cleaning and disinfecting practices, enforcing social distancing on transit vehicles. The list also included pandemic paid leave policies, free testing for the virus for all transit workers, and hazard pay.

Concerned about the lack inaction by transit agencies, the Union embarked on an intensive, 95-point survey process intended to take stock of the health and safety conditions faced by its members, among other labor issues. One-on-one phone calls were conducted with more than 200 Local Union presidents and business agents representing more than 250 bargaining units. Health and safety data from the survey is available upon request.

Among the core findings, the survey found (click here for survey results)

  • Agencies weren’t prepared at all: 64% of respondents surveyed say their employer had no pandemic preparedness plan in place prior to the onset of COVID-19.
  • Service cuts are making social distancing impossible: 80% of respondents reported a reduction or modification in service. If done incorrectly, reducing service can increase overcrowding and heighten the risk of infections to workers and the riding public.
  • Employers are failing to provide adequate PPE: 50% of respondents said bus operators are not being provided masks and gloves; even among those that have PPE, many systems lack enough for each worker, are not protecting maintenance or cleaning staff adequately, or do not have enough replacements in stock to maintain sanitary use.
  • Employers refuse to agree to adequate pandemic leave policies: 64% said their employers are refusing adequate paid pandemic leave, which would allow workers impacted by COVID-19, caring for an infected loved one, or performing childcare for children in shuttered systems to stay home.  
  • Employers are resisting hazard pay: Despite the considerable increase in risk to personal illness experienced by transit workers, only 12% of respondents say their employers are offering any form of hazard pay for transit workers in dangerous positions.
  • Employers are letting buses and trains become overcrowded: More than 50% of agencies are doing nothing to limit the number of passengers on board a transit vehicle at any one time.
  • Employers are asking workers to conduct dangerous work, then laying them off: More than 21,000 transit workers have been laid off at more than 140 transit systems in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Passengers are riding unprotected: Only a handful of transit systems appear to be requiring passengers to wear masks. With states and provinces reopening prematurely, the Union has asked all agencies to mandate masks for passengers and, if necessary, to freely distribute them.
  • Employers aren’t testing their employees: Only a handful of transit systems appear to be conducting on-site testing of employees, increasing the risk of transmission within transit facilities and between operators and passengers. Only 10% of respondents say their employer was paying for testing of exposed employees. 

The ATU played a key role in getting more than $25 billion in emergency funding for transit agencies through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by the U.S. Congress. The Act allows agencies to use the funding for emergency operations, including compensating transit workers and keeping service running for other frontline workers. In addition, the funding can be used to purchase N-95 masks, gloves, other personal protective equipment (PPE) for transit workers, and additional cleaning and sanitizing supplies.

“This Act injected tens of billions of dollars into the industry with maximum flexibility for employers,” Costa said. “Yet many agencies delivered half-measures, inadequate protections, and refused to utilize the available funds to take care of their employees affected by layoffs and service cuts.” 

“Our members are the life-blood of transit systems across North America. They are risking their lives daily to ensure that frontline workers and other riders have access to essential trips during this pandemic,” Costa continued. “But we did not take these jobs to die.”