Tony Utano, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, has seen the New York City transit system weather all kinds of disasters – from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to flooding during Superstorm Sandy. The coronavirus pandemic that has rapidly changed life as we knew it in New York is different, Utano said. As of Wednesday afternoon, New York had reported more than 83,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 2,000 deaths. Transit employees in New York City may be among the state’s more vulnerable workers.
The coronavirus pandemic has created two classes of workers – those deemed essential, such as health care professionals and utility workers, and those deemed nonessential, many of whom are able to work from home. Subway and bus operators, and other kinds of transit workers like those tasked with disinfecting subway stations, fall into the first group. And already, it’s plain to see just how at risk those essential workers are during the coronavirus. As of Wednesday afternoon, eight New York City Transit workers have died because of complications caused by the coronavirus. The MTA has reported more than 500 coronavirus cases among its workers, and thousands more have been quarantined or called out sick.
City & State checked in with Utano to talk about how transit workers are protecting themselves while trying to help essential workers like nurses and first responders commute. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Transport Workers Union Local 100 represents pretty much all of the city’s transit workers. What are the concerns you’re hearing from your members right now?
There’s a lot of fear out there, and now we have people that are dying – (among) transit workers, we have eight now. We’ve been fighting for the masks. Now, (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority) has given us masks, but we need more masks. We need gloves. I know they say the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says that you don’t need the masks – only the people that are affected do. But we’ve been fighting for these masks from the very beginning. (The MTA’s) position was always that you don’t need the masks – if you want to wear them, you can wear them, but we won’t supply them. But they’re now supplying them. I don’t know whether the mask does good for you, does bad for you, but our members want them. It’s peace of mind. We’ve been arguing back and forth, and it seems like now they’re giving us the masks.
What else have your members been asking for or what have you been fighting to get from the MTA?
We’ve done other things working with the MTA. We’ve worked with them to stop collecting cash in the token booths because the cash can carry (the virus). We did rear boarding of buses, and chaining off a part of the bus so people are not in contact with the operator. And now, they’ve moved to an A and B schedule, where they cut the workforce. They leave some people home and they bring some people in, so it doesn’t create any crowding in our quarters. Our facilities are not like mansions. They’re like small locker rooms, and they were crowded. We’re trying to relieve the problems as they come along. But our members know that they have to deliver a service because we’ve got to make sure that we bring these first responders and the nurses and the medical people to where they’ve got to go to save lives. It’s a sacrifice. But there is fear. There is fear.
What are the fears workers are expressing right now?
It’s fears of getting the virus and dying. And now having to make choices to go to their families and say, “Look, these are the papers in case something happens to me.” The sad thought about this disease is when you end up in the hospital, it’s not like your family could come and visit you. These are all thoughts that run in their minds. It’s a bad thing. It’s horrible. We’ve been through many catastrophes. We’ve been through the Trade Center, and 3,000 transit workers responded. With the hurricane, we worked seven days a week to get the system back. Blackouts, derailments. But this is like something that nobody’s ever seen before.
Right. And it’s something that is difficult to plan for. It was recently reported that disaster preparation plans for the MTA had been made, but they aren’t withstanding the test posed by the coronavirus. It seems like your example of there not being enough masks to distribute to workers speaks to that.
Not only that. They also created a hotline, meant for people to call with questions. “I have a fever, what do I do?” “I was in contact.” And the hotline was not able to maintain the amount of calls. So people were spending hours and hours – in one case, one guy spent like 10 hours waiting on the phone.
This is a hotline for transit workers to ask for advice or find resources?
Where do you think the disaster preparation plans went wrong? Was there a way that this could have been handled better?
Sure. They had a plan, back when they had those other flus that came here, that says they’re supposed to have a stockpile of respirators. I don’t think they ever did any of that stuff. And that’s why they’re so far behind. (Editor’s note: The MTA released a statement addressing its pandemic plan on Monday, saying, “The plan includes stockpiling appropriate resources. What it did not contemplate was that medical guidance during this specific pandemic would be to not use certain stockpiled items for all employees. We are no longer following that guidance, and decided last week to deploy resources regardless.”) Going forward, I know what I’m going to do for my union. I’m going to make sure that I go buy respirators; I’m going to make sure that I buy gloves. They don’t even have gloves. I’m going to stockpile them, and I’m going to have them – God forbid there isn’t ever something like this again – at least we’re going to have some preparation. I think the transit authority should look at this and make sure they spend the money and fill up a warehouse with this stuff.
What is TWU doing now for workers now? What kind of services or support is the union able to provide?
Whatever the issue is, they will call us and we will direct them to where they have to go. As far as mental illness (resources)?
Yeah, any supports or services like that.
We have lists of doctors and stuff that we could send them to. If they call, we would send them to the appropriate doctors. We don’t have the resources in-house for doing that.
Have you observed any trends in transit workers who are getting sick from COVID-19? Are subway operators more at risk than bus operators? Are those workers more at risk than the people tasked with disinfecting stations, for example?
It seems to be across the board. The deaths that we’ve had, it’s not all in one area. We had a bus operator in the Bronx; we had a bus operator in Brooklyn. We had a track guy. We have a mechanic from Queens. It’s not isolated to one particular title. There’s about 542 (workers) that are positive (for the coronavirus), and there are probably about 3,000 that are quarantined.
I understand that the MTA is in a tough position with reduced service because so many workers have called in sick, but I’ve also seen reports of crowded subway cars, which may increase the risk to both passengers and transit workers. How do you go about striking that balance?
This is the problem. A lot of people are off, so they can’t run full service if they don’t have the people there. But if you run reduced service and you run less trains, then you’re going to have crowded trains. If you’re able to run more frequent service, then you would have less people. Same with the buses. If you reduce service and you don’t run enough buses, people are going to try to hop on those buses and fill them up. And that’s going to take away the 6 foot social distancing thing.
So then what do you do?
Well, our bus operators, if they have enough people on the buses, they’re just not going to open the doors. Not only is it unsafe for them, but it’s unsafe for the people in the bus. And then people get angry, and then do you know what happens when people get angry? They assault the bus operator or the train operator. But what do you do?
So are bus and train operators being instructed not to open doors if they think their buses or cars are already too crowded?
They’re not instructed, but that’s what they do.
Are there any other policies you’d like to see be put in place or steps you’d like to see taken to protect transit workers right now?
I just wanted to say something about transit workers in general. I’ve been on the job for 40 years. And like I said, we’ve responded to a lot of things. And we never really get acknowledged or recognized for the things that we do. Finally, people are starting to recognize what we do. But we are heroes. What bothers me around New Year’s time, when the ball drops, and the mayor says, “I want to thank to sanitation, police, EMS, fire department.” But you know all those people that are in Times Square? They get there by the trains. And nobody ever acknowledges us for what we do. It would be nice for us to be acknowledged for what we do because it’s not an easy job we do. We put up with a lot. We put up with assaults, different hours, people screaming at us. And it’s not our fault. We just come to do our job. And if trains are delayed, it’s not our fault. All I ask of this public is when you do see a transit worker, give them a thumbs-up. Say something nice instead of doing the yelling and the screaming. Because when there’s a catastrophe, we’ve always been there for them and we’ve always delivered – and we’re going to deliver here too. We know that if we do not provide service, then we cannot get first responders to their locations – particularly nurses and doctors. And it could be us in the hospital not having that nurse or that doctor because they’re not able to get to work. Or it could be our parents, our family. But we know this is an important thing to do. It’s just tough. But we’re going to continue to do it.