NEW YORK, USA – MARCH 21, 2020: Empty subway station with few pedestrians as the result of COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic outbreak in New York City. (Shutterstock)
At least 41 transit workers have died, and more than 6,000 more have fallen sick or self-quarantined. Crew shortages have caused over 800 subway delays and forced 40 percent of train trips to be canceled in a single day. On one line the average wait time, usually a few minutes, ballooned to as high as 40 minutes.
Since the coronavirus pandemic engulfed New York City, it has taken a staggering toll on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the subway, buses and commuter rails and is charged with shuttling workers — like doctors, nurses and emergency responders — who are essential to keeping the city functioning.
But the transit agency may have deepened its work force crisis by not doing more during the early stages of the outbreak to protect its employees and delaying some steps laid out in a plan the M.T.A. had developed for dealing with a pandemic.
The transit agency was late to distribute disinfectant to clean shared work spaces, struggled to keep track of sick workers and failed to inform their colleagues about possible exposure to the virus, according to interviews with two dozen transit workers.
As the virus spread, many workers became so concerned that they took measures into their own hands: They cordoned off seats with duct tape to distance drivers from riders and used their own masks and homemade disinfectant at work, only to be reprimanded by supervisors.
Across the country, the speed and intensity of the outbreak has overwhelmed many public transit agencies, leaving them with a depleted work force and the responsibility of preventing the spread of infection.
In New York, M.T.A. officials said the agency was making extraordinary efforts in the face of the worst public health crisis in decades. They said they acted as quickly as possible to protect workers and riders. They said they responded to workers’ safety concerns as soon as they could, ordering that equipment be scrubbed down and distributing other disinfectants as they have become available.
Patrick J. Foye, the M.T.A. chairman, who himself tested positive for coronavirus, said the agency initially followed guidance from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that healthy people did not need to wear face masks.
Mr. Foye said the M.T.A. then decided to go farther than that, before the C.D.C. changed its advice on masks. He said it had already provided 460,000 masks to workers, in addition to thousands of face shields and 2.5 million pairs of gloves.
“The M.T.A. has taken aggressive action to protect the health and safety of our heroic work force on the front lines of this crisis,” Mr. Foye said.
Still, around 1,500 transit workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 5,604 others have self-quarantined because they are showing symptoms of the infection. Absenteeism is up fourfold since the pandemic began, officials say.
Transit officials have repeatedly pledged to keep the system running as smoothly as possible to ferry people who continue to rely on public transit.
But already, the absences have crippled the agency’s ability to operate its sprawling public transit network, the largest in North America. It has been forced to slash service beyond what was laid out in its initial emergency plan, which reduced service by 25 percent at the end of March.
That plan also cut in half the number of workers needed each day, in an effort to help to promote social distancing in shared work spaces, officials say.
Now transit workers warn that the worsening staffing shortage will make it increasingly difficult to keep even a diminished system running.
“Eventually the subway is going to shut down by default because no one is going to come in to run it,” said Christopher Miller, a train operator who has worked for the M.T.A. for 18 years.
The authority is disinfecting train cars and buses every three days and has urged riders to wait for empty trains to mitigate the overcrowding problems caused by reduced service.
Still, the reduction in service has raised safety concerns. With trains running less frequently, platforms and subway cars have become overcrowded at times, making social distancing impossible.
“I work with patients of all ages who are some of the most immuno-compromised in society,” said Allie Ebben, a licensed medical social worker who lives in Harlem and works in the Bronx. “If I am riding the subway that is packed full and coming in to see my patients, I am a vector for the virus.”
Weeks before the first New Yorker tested positive for the coronavirus, the M.T.A. was aware of the prospect that it might reach the city.
On Jan. 28, the president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, Tony Utano, met with several M.T.A. leaders, including the chief security officer, Patrick T. Warren, at the agency’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan to discuss the coronavirus outbreak, which had already forced a lockdown in Wuhan, China.
A doctor called in to discuss how the authority should respond to an outbreak: disinfectant for employees to keep their hands and shared work spaces clean, and masks, but only for those who fell sick — guidance that mirrored parts of the pandemic plan that the M.T.A. adopted in 2012.
By the group’s next meeting, on March 5, the virus had reached New York.
Workers had already started requesting protective gear, like masks and gloves, but their appeals were denied because, at the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not recommended that healthy people wear face masks.
When some workers wore their own masks, they were told to remove them because they violated uniform policy, according to management responses to two formal complaints reviewed by The New York Times.
At the March 5 meeting, Mr. Utano and other labor leaders pressed the M.T.A. to alleviate the panic spreading among employees by providing masks to all workers and suspending the use of an attendance system that required them to touch a shared screen.
“We are supposed to have systems in place for this. We are supposed to have equipment for us to go out and serve the public even in a crisis,” said Ronald Spring, a bus operator. “But we didn’t see any of that happening like it should have.”
The M.T.A.’s 2012 plan also said that once a pandemic is declared the agency should limit face-to-face contact among front line workers.
M.T.A. officials said the pandemic plan was a guiding framework, rather than a step-by-step manual. Still, the agency did not implement many aspects of the plan until nearly a month after the virus had arrived in New York, workers say.
“The plan includes stockpiling appropriate resources,” Mr. Warren, the agency’s chief safety officer, said in a statement. “What it did not contemplate was that medical guidance during this specific pandemic would be to not use certain stockpiled items for all employees,” referring to the C.D.C.’s initial guidance advising against healthy people wearing masks.
But the dispute over masks was just one concern among workers. As they bumped shoulders in crammed crew rooms, signal towers and on bus routes, they sought social-distancing protocols that did not materialize for weeks.
Bus drivers began cordoning off the front of their buses with tape and instructing riders to enter through the back door — a strategy the M.T.A. later formally adopted.
On the subway, some workers carried homemade bleach and water solutions in spray bottles to clean their booths on the train, which new workers rotate into each time a train completes a run.
“At that point, I said if any changes are going to be made, we are going to have to be the ones to facilitate it, whatever the repercussions,” said Michael Enriquez, a bus operator.
By the end of March, the virus had infiltrated the agency’s work force: On March 24, M.T.A. officials said 52 transit workers had been infected. A week later, the number jumped to 333, with seven workers dead.
The true number of sick workers was most likely higher than official counts, but the authority was having trouble keeping track.
The M.T.A. had set up a hotline for workers to report positive test results and to receive guidance on whether they should self-quarantine. But it had become so overwhelmed — with 7,000 to 8,000 calls per day — that it took some workers days to get through
In response to complaints, the agency increased the number of workers assigned to the hotline to 200, from 50. Now 95 percent of calls are answered, and average wait times on the line are about a minute, according to a transit agency spokeswoman.
With the agency initially struggling to notify workers about sick colleagues they might have been exposed to, employees came to rely on Facebook groups to share information. And as the pandemic rolled into its second month in New York, multiple posts reporting sicknesses or deaths were flooding in each day.
“We’re seeing a lot of our co-workers getting sick or dying. The morale is down. It is very, very bad,” said Nasar Abdurrahman, a bus operator. A colleague at his bus depot, Ernesto Hernandez, died from the virus at the end of March.
At one train terminal, every train dispatcher had fallen ill, leaving supervisors to take their place.
Some employees stopped showing up altogether, opting to burn through their personal and vacation days.
Daniel Cruz, a bus operator who has worked at the M.T.A. for three years, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 29 — three days after he learned that a friend and colleague, Oliver Cyrus, had died from the virus.
“I love my job, but I’m not looking forward to going back to work. I feel like we’ve been left to defend ourselves,” Mr. Cruz said. “At this point, we’re just transporting the virus.”