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Urgency for Protection of Vulnerable Transit Workers

Transit workers, part of the “essential workforce” at the front line and heightened risk for contracting COVID-19, are increasingly concerned and speaking up about the need for better protections for their safety. Even under typical circumstances, transit workers face high risk circumstances, which are now compounded by the coronavirus. According to a New York Times analysis, among U.S. workers, bus drivers rank in the 78th percentile for being in close proximity to others, meaning they are highly exposed to infectious disease. In addition, many transit workers are older than 65, an apparent further disadvantage to resisting the virus. 

Though ridership among all mass transit is down due to stay at home orders, service cuts have also occurred, leading to crowded conditions on some trains and buses. Transit agencies claim to have adopted measures such as increased station and vehicle cleaning, providing PPE for workers, going fare free, imposing passenger limits, boarding passengers on the rear of the vehicle to avoid contact with operators, and signage advocating social distancing. However, many transit workers and their representatives across the country feel the safety measures that have purportedly been put in place so far are inadequate. Calls for further measures, including hazard pay, paid sick leave, and federal enforcement of safety measures, are increasingly voiced.

Some workers and union leaders feel that drastic action, including work stoppages, might be necessary to stem the sickness and mortality among their members. Larry Willis, President of the Transportation Trades Department, stated, “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. And currently there is.”