COVID-19 takes toll on transit workers as MARTA approaches 200th case

MARTA and other transit agencies are taking precautions – from social distancing on buses to deep cleaning of transit vehicles and stations – to keep customers and employees safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. But about 200 MARTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19. (MARTA PHOTO)

MARTA and other transit agencies are taking precautions – from social distancing on buses to deep cleaning of transit vehicles and stations – to keep customers and employees safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. But about 200 MARTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19. (MARTA PHOTO)

MARTA is approaching a grim milestone this week, when its 200th employee likely will test positive for COVID-19 — a mark that underscores the risks endured by transit employees and other essential workers during the pandemic.

Workers at other metro Atlanta transit agencies also have tested positive for the disease. Three local transit workers have died from COVID-19, as have scores of others across the country.

MARTA and other transit providers have taken steps to protect workers. Among other things, they’ve limited seating on buses, encouraged or required passengers to wear masks, and waived bus fares to separate drivers from customers. Some have paid workers extra for hazardous duty.

“We understand the risk they have,” said Luz Borrero, MARTA’s chief administrative officer. “We want to make sure they feel good about it.”

But as the number of COVID cases rises, it’s clear there’s no foolproof way to shield transit workers from a pandemic that has sickened some 289,000 Georgians and claimed the lives of more than 6,200. Union representatives say agencies can do more to protect employees.

“We want to make sure that the (bus and train) operators are protected,” said Britt Dunams, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732. “They’re driving on a daily basis at a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus or another disease.”

Since the pandemic began, the safety of transit employees and passengers has been a significant concern. Social distancing is difficult or impossible on crowded trains and buses. And while the number of passengers has plummeted amid the pandemic, many essential workers and low-income residents rely on transit to get to jobs and other destinations.

Local transit agencies have stepped up cleaning of trains, buses and stations. They’ve provided employees with protective equipment. They’ve limited the number of passengers per vehicle and encouraged passengers to wear masks. MARTA eventually required passengers to wear masks.

Some agencies have stopped collecting bus fares to limit passenger interaction with drivers (MARTA resumed collecting fares this week). MARTA went further, eliminating most of its bus routes in April and increasing the frequency of service on remaining routes. The idea was to spread passengers out on more buses.

Still, illness among employees has mounted. As of Friday afternoon, 198 employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

Seven workers have tested positive at Gwinnett County Transit and the state’s Xpress bus system, according to Transdev, the private company that operates those services.

It’s unclear how many have tested positive at CobbLinc, the region’s other major transit agency. First Transit, the private firm that operates CobbLinc, did not respond to a request for comment. Cobb County spokesman Ross Cavitt said the county is reluctant to release medical information from the private company.

Three local transit workers have died from COVID-19 — one each from MARTA, Gwinnett County Transit and CobbLinc. The Amalgamated Transit Union says 87 of its members have died across the country.

Borrero said even one employee death is too many. But she said MARTA has fared better than other large U.S. transit agencies.

One reason, she said: MARTA uses “contact tracing.” When employees become ill, MARTA determines when they last worked, how many employees they came in contact with and other details. Anyone who has come in close contact with an infected employee is sent home, usually within 24 hours, Borrero said.

In addition to the 198 employees who have tested positive, MARTA has sent an additional 570 employees home to be quarantined. That’s a combined 768 employees who have been absent for some period because of COVID-19 since March — about 16% of MARTA’s total workforce.

Borrero said the absences generally have not affected bus and rail service because they have been spread out over time. Currently, about 50 MARTA employees are not at work because of the disease.

“When we began back in March, I was just really concerned about absenteeism,” she said. “But we have not experienced high rates of absenteeism.”

Transdev said it provides face shields, masks and gloves to all employees and requires them to wear masks. It also provides hand sanitzer and wipes, encourages hand washing and conducts daily temperature checks as workers report for duty.

“The health and safety of our employees, passengers and communities we serve remains our highest priority,” the company said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are extremely proud of our employees and what they have been doing to ensure essential services for our region.”

Still, employees don’t feel safe, said Mikesha Walker, a union official and Gwinnett County Transit driver.

She worries that transit agencies will take workers' health for granted. Among other things, she’s been fighting for hazard pay for workers — something that MARTA and CobbLinc have provided. Transdev has paid employees full pay, regardless of how many hours they work.

“They’re trying to normalize the situation,” Walker said. “But it’s not normal for us bus operators.”

Dunams, the Amalgamated Transit Union local’s president, said MARTA should implement temperature checks of employees and improve communication with workers. And though the agency gave workers a $500 “hero” bonus earlier this year, the union is pressing for more hazard pay.

“They should be honored,” Dunams said of employees working during the pandemic. “The employees should say when they look back that the company and the union took care of them during this time.”