New York's transit stations will glow this week with the memory of 136 passed Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers who lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus. "Travels Far," an eight-minute video memorializing the MTA workers, friends and colleagues, will play on digital screens across more than 100 stations through Feb. 7.
"Through stations and years, through the veined chambers of a stranger's heart — what you gave travels far," wrote former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith for the memorial.
MTA is one of countless transit agencies that have suffered losses — of revenues, of ridership, of employees and friends — as transit services continue amid the pandemic.
These workers are showing renewed hope as the authority rapidly vaccinates its workers, yet MTA's pace of inoculation is not the norm at other agencies. While transit workers are commonly considered "essential" in most states, agencies are struggling to secure vaccinations amid scarce supply and wavering guidance.
States' tiers and rollout
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) identified transit as one of 16 "critical infrastructure sectors" that should receive priority access to the vaccination. Per this guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended public transit workers receive their vaccinations in Phase 1b alongside other essential workers.
Union leaders have echoed this guidance by noting the vital role transportation workers have played during the pandemic.
"Transit operators and other transportation workers have been essential personnel to keep us afloat and we're going to continue to do that," said Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer at Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD). "[When] you're looking at essential workers and who needs to be vaccinated to help us see out of this, transportation workers need to be right there in Phase 1b because they're going to be helping to distribute the vaccine and make sure that everybody else is able to get it."
Inoculation plans vary state, however. While many follow the CDC guidelines, others have charted their own course — or have stayed tight-lipped on vaccination plans altogether.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing criticism for a recent change to his vaccination plan that will replace essential worker priority with age-based priority. This decision prompted a letter from the California Transit Association (CTA) urging Newsom's reconsideration on the matter.
"[O]ur frontline workers, who cannot work from home, are interacting daily with the very people the state has elevated for prioritization in its new plan," CTA Executive Director Michael Pimentel wrote in the letter. "[T]ransit agencies are providing services that undeniably align with the services provided by the few sectors that would still benefit from the limited sector-based distribution under the new plan."
Workforce management and education
Once transit workers are able to access vaccinations, a new challenge may arise in ensuring continuity of transit services, experts warn. It will be incumbent on supervisors to balance the health needs of their workers with riders' service demands, said Mindy Honcoop, chief people officer at workforce software firm TimeClock Plus (TCP). She emphasized the importance of using available tools to achieve this balance.
"With a time and attendance tool, the manager is able to approve that person to get vaccinated, because they have backups that are able to run that bus, because after the second shot, people may have side effects, so may need to take two or three days to recover," Honcoop said. "So they have the ability to approve that, knowing that there's someone else that can manage that bus in case that person does have side effects."
And it’s not just operators who will need the vaccine. Michael Urban, a senior lecturer at the Allied Health Department at the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, said transit agencies should consider prioritization of frontline workers ahead of administrative staff who may be at a lower risk for contracting the virus.
"There are those who wish to be an ambassador or the people in the offices at ticket booths where before the pandemic, they've always been behind plexiglass and are a little ventilated," Urban said. "Then there are the people who are actually interacting with multiple people, but just with a face mask on. So I think that's how you look at prioritizing who needs it first."
Guidance is murkier around the vaccination of paratransit drivers, who transport disabled and elderly people. These drivers are often private contractors working on behalf of transit agencies, not directly for them. And while transit agencies can mandate direct employees get vaccinated, it may be trickier to do the same for contractors.
"[Paratransit drivers] touch a lot of different levels besides being transport workers, dealing with people with medical issues," said Guy James, international representative at the International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades (IUJAT), which represents paratransit drivers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. "They're not a paramedic that's dealing directly on the medical issue, but they're dealing with the people that have medical issues. They're dealing with people that have to go to different social programs. And they're driving a vehicle."
Elected officials say organized labor can be a key driver of vaccine advocacy and education for their workers.
At a Jan. 5 press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, called on public safety departments and transit systems to "operationalize their own vaccination system” and tap into union resources to alleviate the demand that more public health systems are facing.
"They have their own employees who can do the vaccine," Cuomo said. "To the extent we can have the essential workers use their own employees or their own health system provider to do their own vaccines, that removes a burden from the retail system, if you will. It removes them from the hospital system."
In a letter to governors urging for transportation workers to be prioritized for the vaccine, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) offered to help local governments administer vaccinations, especially as many frontline workers still rely on public transportation.
"We sent that out and talked about how the transit industry can play a big part in getting this out quicker and putting them on notice that, don't forget we're here and can be utilized," said ATU International President John Costa. "[Let's] face it, most of us are taking the essential employees to work every day, so if we're affected, it makes no sense that we're going to be affecting the people that we're relying on to give us our food and medicine and treat us in hospitals."
"Unions know their members as well as anybody."
Secretary-Treasurer, Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO
The most important role transportation unions can play is in educating their members about the need for getting the vaccine, scheduling a follow-up appointment to receive the second dose, and ensuring there is no disinformation around its safety, said TTD’s Regan.
"Unions know their members as well as anybody," he said. "[I] think they should be consulted in all this; they should be playing a role in helping to make sure their members are protected, and that they can help our country get out of this."
Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) President John Samuelsen said unions are already playing a role in getting some workers to vaccination sites in New York City, and there are similar efforts to follow elsewhere — assuming an ongoing supply of the vaccine.
"The bigger problem is either the logistical arrangements that states and localities have arranged or the shortage of the vaccine itself, or a combination of both," Samuelsen said. "It's not that workers don't want to get vaccinated. And anybody who says that is just hiding behind it, it's just trying to use it as an excuse for their incompetence."
The future of transit
Distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine will not only be crucial for the transit workforce’s recovery, but also for ridership as agencies try to prove that trains and buses are safe to use.
"Gaining trust back in public transportation is part of the solution," said Arno Kerkhof, head of the bus division at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), in a recent Optibus webinar. "Local networks should work on communication and transparency to passengers. All the investment in disinfecting buses and making them safe — making this invisible process visible — will help regain the trust of passengers."
In addition to vaccinations, increased personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing capacity can help riders regain confidence. One company has already looked to up the ante on distributing PPE and testing through touchless vending machines in the United Kingdom. With a vision of having the machines roll out at airports, transit stations and elsewhere, Stop the Spread Solutions said in time, PPE could be as easy to purchase at travel stops as phone chargers and other essentials.
"I think we can take lessons off Eastern European, East Asian countries where they wear PPE as soon as they have symptoms of any illness," said Henry Farrelly, the company's managing director. "It helps stop the common cold getting around there… Having PPE so accessible in vending machines everywhere in most public places will definitely aid that and help people get hold of it when they do start to feel symptoms."
But some warned sweeping changes are needed if public transit is to really thrive post-pandemic. Samuelsen said more direct investment of tax dollars is needed to help agencies regain a strong financial footing. He noted the need for multiple federal bailouts last year as agencies saw revenue drastically dip, and said leaders must rethink agency revenue streams to alleviate dependency on the farebox.
"When a paramedic comes to your house, you don't hand the guy $20 before the paramedic starts working on a loved one," Samuelsen said. "It's built into the tax base because it's recognized as a vital service that society needs. And public transit must be recognized as the one of the most vital services that society needs and step up and eliminate the over reliance on the fare box. If it doesn't happen, we're going to look at this again."