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Transit Workers are Heroes and they Deserve Protection, Too

By Larry I. Willis

Yesterday I joined AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, transit union leaders, and their members on a call with reporters to shed light on the plight transit workers face as they work through the COVID-19 pandemic. The AFL-CIO, ATU, SMART-TD, TCU-IAM, TWU and TTD spoke with a collective voice yesterday to urge elected officials and transit agencies to do more to keep these frontline workers safe and protected.

The duties performed by frontline transit employees are recognized as essential by the government—and it is easy to see why. As COVID-19 ravages communities across our country, transit workers and the systems they operate offer a vital lifeline so people can get to medical appointments and the grocery store. Frontline transit workers also help ensure medical professionals, paramedics, and police officers can get to their jobs, too. In our time of crisis, they are heroes moving heroes.

Unlike others across our economy, though, transit workers cannot simply log onto a computer to do their jobs. People like Lakecha Strickland, a Chattanooga Area Transit Authority bus driver and President of ATU local 1212, Charles Quinn, a cleaner for Long Island Rail Road, and President of TCU-IAM Local 90, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker and TWU member Duane Clark must report to work to perform their duties, which often includes interacting with members of the public.

Despite the serious risks currently associated with close human-to-human contact, more than a month after WHO declared a global pandemic, there are still no mandatory federal cleaning or protection standards for transit agencies to follow. When it comes to the health and safety of public transit workers, the response to this pandemic varies from agency to agency.

The consequences of these patchwork efforts have become devastatingly clear. Many transit workers still do not have the personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies, or adequate direction from their employers to ensure their health and safety, or the health and safety of their families. In cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, or Detroit — where a quarter of the population relies on public transit to get to work, the grocery store, and medical appointments — transit workers are literally putting their lives on the line to keep America moving. These workers are becoming sick and, in some cases, tragically dying at alarming rates.

While transit workers have the right to refuse to work if their environment is not safe — a protection granted to them in federal law after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — this right must be enhanced and improved, and communicated clearly to both employers and workers.

As the coronavirus crisis drags on, transit unions and TTD are calling on the federal government to do more to ensure the health, safety, and economic security of our nation’s public transportation workforce. Just last week we urged the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to require minimum standards for PPE and cleaning, continued pay for administrative leave if those standards cannot be met, and policies for rear-door loading and temporarily reduced maximum capacity on transit vehicles.

In response to our outreach, the FTA encouraged transit agencies to do more to protect their frontline employees. While the voluntary guidance FTA issued is a good first step, we know more is needed. We also know recommendations alone are not enough. Our nation’s transit workers are unsung, national heroes, and they need to know they are safe and protected at work. PPE, social-distancing, and cleaning standards must be made mandatory during this crisis.

Lawmakers agree. Led by Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA), and Don Bacon (R-NE), more than 140 members of Congress are now calling on the FTA to take stronger measures to protect our nation’s transit workforce. When Congress considers the next COVID bill, transportation labor will make sure our elected leaders understand that frontline transit workers are placing their lives on the line for the people of this country and need to be protected.

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