Transit unions call for overhaul of federal guidance on worker protection after COVID-19 deaths

A group of unions urged the federal government to provide universal guidelines on transit worker protection.
Mark Hallum

As transit workers suffer disproportionately from coronavirus, a coalition of unions is calling on the federal government to update guidelines regarding worker protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal guidelines, which initially recommended that workers wear face masks only if sick, puts the lives of transit workers in danger, the unions claim.

“While these working Americans are risking their lives, they are being let down by their federal government,” read a letter sent to the federal Departments of Labor and Transportation by the Transit Trades Department, a coalition of 32 unions. “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 Metropolitan Transit Authority initially followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, but later changes its own policy to recommend that all workers wear face masks, increased death benefit for its workers to $500,000, and says it supports federally funded hazard pay, a spokesperson said.

“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,” said an MTA spokesman.

The updated policy may have helped decrease the number of COVID-19 cases among workers. On Monday, MTA authorities announced that a majority of the agency’s employees are back at work after a period of mandatory quarantine. Previously, a shortage of works has hampered their efforts to increase service over the past few weeks, as the agency’s chairman Pat Foye explained.

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

Following the changes in protocol made by the MTA, the Transit Trades Department is calling on the federal Departments of Labor and Transportation to provide uniform standards for transit employees to standardize contagion efforts nationwide.

“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 continues. “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 Transit Trades Department President Larry Willis, the organization also asks the two agencies to back major legislation that would ensure paid sick leave for workers who are sick, have been exposed to COVID-19, or caring for a family member who is ill.

This story first appeared on AMNY

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