Shanta Grant is a CTtransit bus driver in Stamford who’s scared to go to work during the pandemic -- especially when passengers don’t wear masks.
“We are essential workers, we are on the front line each and every day putting ourselves at risk,” Grant said, “putting our families at risk, and we deserve hazardous pay. We deserve to be accommodated for our work.”
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Bus operators across the state say some people are still riding buses without masks, a choice that goes against Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order to wear masks in public and that specifically requires masks while using public transportation. Even so, drivers say they’re not allowed to refuse riders.
“For the safety of our employees, and out of respect for some of our riders who may be medically prevented from doing so, we are allowing those without masks to ride our buses,” Cole Pouliot, CTtransit’s general manager, said in an email.
Grant was part of a group of transit operators from across the state who gathered at the state Capitol Friday with signs and demands for the state and their employers to step up. They called for hazard pay as they continue to drive public and commuter buses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jonathan Cayo, another Stamford driver, said increasing pay by a couple of dollars an hour would make a difference.
“We carry the nurses, the grocery workers, we carry the firemen -- everybody -- the sick people, the homeless, everybody,” Cayo said. “We carry them so we expose ourselves, but they still don’t consider us as the front-line workers.”
Transit agencies across the state aren’t offering hazard pay for their employees despite repeated requests by employees who’ve continued to work during the pandemic and some who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. The state’s largest agency, CTtransit, cited budget constraints.
“Other funding sources would need to be identified in order to potentially provide any additional compensation,” Pouliot said.
CTtransit employs 1,200 drivers. As of May 15, 30 employees had tested positive since CTtransit began tracking cases in March: 25 bus operators, four maintenance workers and an administrative employee, Pouliot said.
Late Thursday night, Howard Rogers, a New Haven CTtransit maintenance worker, passed away from COVID-19. Rogers, who was 55, was hospitalized for weeks after testing positive. He is the first CTtransit employee to die from the virus, according to CTtransit.
Ralph Buccitti, president of Local 281, New Haven’s chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), was emotional when speaking about Rogers’ death.
“From day one, we asked, we begged and we fought with management to get the PPEs and the protective gowns and the proper equipment,” Buccitti said. “The only time that they stepped up was when it became a governor’s order. What’s the value of a human life if you gotta wait for somebody from the top to give you a directive to do the right thing?”
According to Buccitti, over 200 employees have “either self-quarantined or tested positive.”
When the pandemic started, many CTtransit employees said they weren’t given PPE or sanitizing supplies. The agency confirmed it closed employee break rooms, leaving many workers without a place to use the bathroom or rest between shifts. The bathroom issue has become exacerbated by widespread restaurant and business closures.
Artan Martinaj, the business manager for Local 425, Hartford’s ATU chapter, said some of his drivers have resorted to wearing diapers during their shifts as there are hardly any places for them to use the bathroom with the closure of many businesses. Bathroom breaks were already a contentious issue for drivers before the pandemic started. Martinaj said drivers have been penalized for attempting to use the bathroom during their shifts.
“As a general practice, we don’t provide comments on personnel matters as we have a grievance process with our unions to resolve most matters involving discipline,” Pouliot said in an email. “With that said, I have no knowledge of anyone being suspended for using a bathroom.”
Drivers Say ‘We Move Connecticut’
Lamont acknowledged the transit workers’ protest during a Friday morning news conference, saying they’re “hard at work, front line, every day doing their job.”
“We're here to back them up in any way that we can,” Lamont said.
While the governor said more masks are on the way, he made no commitment on hazard pay. Milford, Bridgeport and Norwalk transit systems operate independently from CTtransit. Mustafa Salahuddin, who represents drivers in Bridgeport and Milford, said he’s filed a complaint against Milford Transit with the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA says an investigation is ongoing.
“They’re not giving them the proper PPE, they’re making them disinfect their own buses after they finish their tours,” Salahuddin said. “They’re doing it with rubber gloves and a surgical mask without hazmat coveralls. Some of them are up in age, 66 and 77 years old.”
In an email, Milford Transit director Henry Jadach said that, about a month ago, the agency began providing hand sanitizer and masks “as needed.”
“Drivers are not required to sanitize buses. Other employees do. An outside contractor will take over that task on Monday,” Jadach said in an email.
Norwalk Transit employs 134 people, none of whom have tested positive, according to CEO Kimberlee Morton. She says drivers have access to a 15-minute rapid testing center. Hazard pay, Morton said, has not been budgeted for.
“Consideration of hazard pay cannot be contemplated standing alone,” Morton said in an email. “It needs to be part of the entire financial decision making process … Providing service since the onset of COVID has become an extremely expensive endeavor.”
Norwalk’s union president, Eric Salomon, said he met with Morton, who’s considering installing a device that could electronically collect fares at a safe distance from drivers.
“I have a driver who’s hospitalized,” Salomon said. “We hope they can do the right things to save our lives and our families’ lives.”
According to Morton, the cost of cleaning buses, providing PPE, paid sick leave and overtime pay, and the loss of farebox revenue have “left critical financial gaps that all agencies will need to realistically deal with now and in the future.”
“I think it’s terrible that drivers put their lives on the line each and every day to ensure the safe transport of passengers,” said Anthony Taylor, president of Local 1763, Rocky Hill’s ATU chapter. “And yet bus companies across the country don’t see hazardous pay as being something that’s vitally important.”
Drivers Want Bus Upgrades, Better Treatment, and Enforcement of Executive Orders
Drivers from multiple agencies want their entire bus fleets to be equipped with plexiglass partitions and protections, rather than just some of the buses. They also think the farebox needs to be repositioned as they anticipate an increase in ridership once the state begins to reopen.
“As a driver, I don’t see how management is going to prevent the customers from following the [social distancing] rules, especially if they’re going to collect the fare,” said Jonathan Cayo, the Stamford CTtransit driver. “I don’t see how we’re not going to get infected by this virus. That concerns me as a driver, I have a wife, I have kids, three kids. I want to live, I don’t want to die from it.”
Drivers also fear that they’ll be denied workers’ compensation benefits since on-the-job exposure to the virus is not included in the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act.
“Workmen’s compensation is very important for the simple fact that there are members that are getting this virus and not coming back to work the same,” said Salahuddin, the Bridgeport and Milford union representative. “There are members coming back to work that are not the same. They continue to have shortness of breath.”
State Rep. Edwin Vargas met briefly with transit drivers outside the Capitol after the protest. Vargas said he intends to deliver the transit workers’ signed petitions to the governor’s office.
“It’s terrible that we’re losing our front-line workers in transportation because passengers aren’t wearing masks,” Vargas said. “We can do something about it by requiring a mask, and if we have to provide the passengers masks, then the state should provide the passengers masks. We can’t allow people to keep on dying over this.”