As the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in New York and New Jersey, MTA transit workers are increasingly concerned about the lack of mask compliance among employees, as well as an uptick in infections within the MTA.
The number of MTA workers testing positive for COVID-19 is up slightly over the past two weeks. At the end of October, an average of 4.5 transit workers were testing positive each day. That number is now up to about 6.5 a day, or roughly 0.19% of those tested.
“Which are low rates, given what’s been going on in the city,” Chief Safety Officer and Chief Operating Officer of New York City Transit Patrick Warren told Gothamist. “We don’t want anyone to be sick, clearly, but we’re pleased that we’re managing to keep the numbers as low as they are, but it’s clear as we go into the holiday and colder weather we’re going to have to be more vigilant than ever.”
The citywide seven day positive test rate is at 2.8 percent, the highest since May.
The MTA began conducting onsite coronavirus testing at several work sites at the end of October, with the goal of testing 2,000 workers a week, which the agency said it’s already close to meeting.
21 subway workers tested positive for coronavirus over a recent seven-day period, according to a source with knowledge of the MTA’s testing results.
This comes as ridership on subways has returned to about 30 percent of what it was before the pandemic. The MTA reports mask compliance by riders is about 90 percent.
The MTA’s workforce was the city’s hardest hit compared to other city workers, like the NYPD, FDNY and DSNY, with 128 workers dying from the virus and thousands sickened. A recent preliminary study found as many as a quarter of the workforce may have caught the virus since March.
“It’s a little scary going to work. It’s better than it was in March. But a lot of people still aren’t wearing masks,” David Noven, 52, a supervisor at a train maintenance shop in Inwood told Gothamist/WNYC.
Noven said the so-called temperature brigades don’t work, because the thermometers are unreliable, and even when they do show a high temperature, he’s seen people go to work anyway. He says workers at his shop also aren’t utilizing the free coronavirus testing at the work site. And he says the MTA needs to do more to ensure workers are complying with mask regulations.
“They should really make efforts to separate workers,” he said. “And they should give us some system to enforce a mask rule. Some people wear masks, some people don’t. People have to work very closely with each other.”
The MTA requires all customers and employees to wear masks. Riders are subject to a $50 fine for not wearing one in the system, although there’s no similar fine for workers. It’s up to supervisors to ensure compliance or workers could face disciplinary action.
“The MTA has led the way in combating the COVID-19 pandemic -- from launching the first COVID screening program for transit workers and an aggressive flu shot campaign to installing hundreds of plexiglass barriers at buses and workplace locations and distributing more than 15 million masks to customers and employees. In consultation with leading public health authorities, the MTA will continue to remain vigilant and innovative at every turn to help keep New Yorkers safe as this is our top priority,” MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan wrote.
But some MTA workers say the agency isn’t doing enough to get its own staff to wear a mask at work all day.
Train operator LaCheryl Kenner-Edwards, 60, has been at the MTA for 38 years. An asthma sufferer, she took leave on March 31st over fears of catching the coronavirus. When she returned to work at the beginning of October, she was shocked to find the lack of mask compliance among other MTA workers.
“People in the breakroom, they get very lax,” Kenner-Edwards told Gothamist. She said she wears three masks and a face shield at work, and doesn’t care that her co-workers refer to her as “Darth Vader.” She said she recently went into a supervisors office to find him not wearing a mask at all. “I said, ‘What’s the matter? Don’t get jealous cause you don’t have [a mask].’ I said, ‘ya’ll play too much here, I don’t have time.’”
She said she wears her masks all day, and eats a big breakfast before she gets to work so she doesn’t need to eat during the day and take her mask off.
A spokesperson for the union didn’t have any comment about mask compliance.
But the President of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 Tony Utano said the union is still “focused” on increasing social distancing and reducing the number of people in crew and break rooms, as well as getting more trailers and empty buses for workers to use for breaks.
Chief Safety Officer Warren said it’s up to managers and supervisors to monitor break rooms for overcrowding and compliance.
The union also wants higher grade air filters on buses and subway trains, perhaps similar to what is being piloted on some Metro-North and Long Island Railroad trains right now.
Warren said the pilot is still underway, but air exchange on the subways is quite frequent, several times a minute, and the MTA has already put the best filters on each subway car. He said he’s more concerned about what workers do in their free time, and the MTA sends out frequent messages and alerts reminding everyone to social distance, avoid crowded indoor settings, and to always wear a mask.
“The numbers of our employees that are frankly not getting ill demonstrates just how effective what we’re doing in the subway system is,” Warren said.