The city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) employs about 71,000 workers in its various systems, as subway drivers, toll collectors, bus drivers, and dozens of other jobs across multiple forms of public transit. And over the past two weeks, at least 41 employees within the system have died of COVID-19.
By comparison, the city’s first-responder forces — which is to say, its police officers and firefighters — employ about 72,000 people, roughly the same as the MTA. Combined, the city’s police and fire departments have lost 11 employees to COVID-19 in the past few weeks.
That means that the city’s transit employees are dying of the deadly virus at three times the rate of the city’s workers who are on the front lines of the pandemic.
“A diabolical person could not have engineered a better spreader of the virus than the New York City subway system,” said Transport Workers Union international president John Samuelsen, a former subway track worker.
He notes that workers in the subway system breathe in dust, diesel fumes, and other pollutants, weakening their lungs and putting them at greater risk of developing severe complications from novel coronavirus. He also noted that, at the beginning of his career, several of his older colleagues would go on to die of lung disease.
Other transit workers point to what they call a slow response by the city to protect them from the virus.
For example, the system’s management initially declined to provide employees with masks, following Centers for Disease Control guidelines that suggested that healthy people didn’t need them. That allowed the virus to spread rapidly among the workers in the first few weeks of March, they say. Only later did the system’s management begin distributing tens of thousands of masks to its employees.
“With the masks it was too little, too late. All the bosses seem to care about is running as much service as possible. Their blatant disregard is going to cause more loss of life as the pandemic continues,” said a subway worker who asked to remain anonymous.
In a statement, interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg said that the MTA is “devastated” by the toll the pandemic has taken on the system’s employees.
“We will continue to do all that we can to protect them, from distributing masks, gloves and sanitizer, to taking any additional measures we possibly can,” she said.