Three New York City transit workers dying every day of coronavirus
Passengers getting off and on a NYC subway train. The MTA was forbidding transit workers from wearing masks long after passengers started wearing them. New York transit workers are now dying at three times or more the rate of any other front line workers in the city. | John Minchillo/AP

NEW YORK – This city’s bus and subway workers are dying at a faster rate than their counterparts anywhere across the country. The shocking death rate among the employees of the New York Transit system is triple the death rate for any other group of front line workers in this city.

More than 7,500 have been either infected or are in quarantine, with at least 41 dead.

The alarming death rate would not be as horrific as it is, transit workers say, had the Transit Authority and its parent body, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, not ignored the desperate pleas of the workers for protection before the coronavirus crisis exploded in New York City.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, (MTA), the State-run agency that oversees the mass transportation system in New York, is keeping the system running and demanding that transit employees continue to report to work, despite worker demands for an emergency shutdown to slow the daily death rate.

In true Trump fashion, MTA chair Pat Foye is claiming that the agency was looking out for the wellbeing of its employees as early as March 1.

In fact, giving the lie to Foye’s assertions, the MTA is only now distributing protective equipment to some TA workers. Initially MTA management not only did not distribute masks but actually forbade their use.

On March 2 TA management put out an official bulletin forbidding the use of any protective equipment by transit workers, saying it “was not part of the official uniform” and “might alarm the public.”

On March 19 bulletins were posted in bus depots explicitly forbidding the use of masks by drivers. It wasn’t until April 7 that management finally began to distribute masks.

MTA inaction notwithstanding, the transit workers themselves have been struggling to protect themselves and the public since the earliest days of the crisis. They demanded that they be allowed to wear protective gear and that personal protective equipment be provided by the Transit Authority.

From the very start a leader of this grass roots movement demanding protective gear has been Tramell Thompson, a subway train conductor and union activist. Thompson, a founder of the rank and file group “Progressive Action,” is also host of a web TV show of the same name that covers a wide range of issues important to the New York transit workforce.

Now, in the face of the horrifying rate of fatalities, Thompson and many other transit workers are demanding that the system be shut down. In addition, Thompson has called for Transit Authority President Sarah Feinberg and MTA Chair Pat Foye to resign over their demonstrated failures in this crisis. He says they have demonstrated that they can’t handle their jobs and that their inaction has led to worker deaths.

Their inaction amounts to criminal malfeasance, he says, accusing Foye, Feinberg and the rest of MTA management of having “rolled out a red carpet to death.” Thompson has challenged Foye to call him and defend the MTA response to the crisis, if he can.

Like Trump, the MTA is trying to shift blame by saying that they were just doing what they were told by someone else, whether that be the governor, the CDC, the state or any other entity. Thompson pointed out that “the MTA, a state agency run by the governor, operates as its own government  – in other words it can do what it wants, without having to listen to anybody.  The bottom line is that they could have provided masks from the start if they had wanted to but they didn’t want to give masks and they are now trying to evade the blame.”

At New York’s MTA, however, the problem goes beyond Foye and Feinberg. There is no profit in transit – at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Management, however, does make plenty of money through massive corruption and patronage. This has resulted in the appointment of inept and unqualified candidates to management positions at every level and it is now becoming clear that the agency is unable to deal with the present crisis.

All the unqualified MTA managers can do to evade responsibility is to play the blame game – to try and shift the blame as they fall further behind the curve.

TA officials, including New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg, are calling transit workers “heroes.” They are trying to make up for their having ignored the needs of those workers. It was only a short while ago, because of alleged overtime irregularities, mainly at another MTA agency, New York City Transit workers were treated by these same managers as thieves, Thompson and others point out.

Feinberg, an appointee, has little relevant prior experience in transit management. She was a “business consultant,” widely viewed by transit workers as having used political connections to be appointed to one position after another until she was finally appointed to this one.

It was felt that she would be incapable of managing New York City Transit even in normal times and now, in the face of the present crisis, her ineptitude stands exposed.

While unqualified appointees like Foye and Feinberg are going out of their way to now praise the workers as they die, the workers themselves are speaking out in their own words.

Describing the dangers they face daily, one told Peoples World that, “On my lunch breaks I’m walking outside up and down the streets because the swing rooms are packed with people sitting less than four feet across or standing close to each other.”

Another worker said bitterly, “Managers are working at home sending out emails how we should report to work and then call us heroes when we are dead.”

Still another said, “They could have prevented all the lives that have been lost if from the time the first case hit the system, they shut it down; as simple as that.”

Finally, the MTA is obligated to provide the families of workers who die in the line of duty a death benefit of $500,000. Tramell Thompson and his fellow workers are gearing up to ensure that this earned benefit is, as it should be, provided to each and every worker killed by the coronavirus. That’s not something they can automatically count on from a management that can’t be depended upon to do anything more than describe the dead as “heroes.”

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Gary Bono
Gary Bono

Gary Bono is an activist and retired transit worker writing from New York.