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NYC Bus Drivers Fighting for Protective Masks From MTA

Riders were blocked from getting too close to MTA bus drivers during the coronavirus outbreak.
Riders were blocked from getting too close to MTA bus drivers during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Many city bus drivers are donning their own masks during the coronavirus crisis, with the MTA so far sticking to a policy of not providing protective gear to those behind the wheel.

Signs that read “We are not to give any bus drivers items that have to do with Corona Virus” and “Attn: Bus Operators… Facemasks are not to be issued to you” have been posted in two Brooklyn depots that, according to internal records obtained by THE CITY, have more than 4,500 single-use “N95” respirator masks in stock.

An MTA spokesperson said personal protective equipment is issued to those who need it for jobs in which they are exposed to chemicals and fumes. That does not include bus drivers.

A MTA memorandum posted in a Brooklyn bus depot states drivers are not getting protective masks.
A MTA memorandum posted in a Brooklyn bus depot states drivers are not getting protective masks. Photo: Obtained by THE CITY

The union would rather that everyone who wants one, gets one.

“Members are already under tremendous stress,” said JP Patafio, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100. “And if we’ve got these masks, what are we waiting for?”

MTA Chairman Patrick Foye on Monday pointed to a global shortage of ventilators, masks and gloves in hospitals. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, he added, has “unleashed literally a war effort” to increase supplies in the state.

“As soon as that shortage is addressed, and the governor and his team are all over the issue, we have committed to union leadership that we will distribute masks [to the] entire workforce,” Foye said on the “PIX 11 Morning News.”

Meanwhile, to better shield employees from the spread of coronavirus, the MTA on Monday began boarding most riders through rear doors and sealing off the first three rows for local and Select Bus Service routes.

Conflicting Guidance

The MTA has said it is following medical guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and the state Health Department on masks and gloves — which employees were reminded of in a March 8 memo and during an employee town hall meeting last week.

“When it comes to wearing such gear as masks and gloves, these items are not recommended by the CDC as protecting against the COVID-19 virus,” Patrick Warren, the MTA’s chief safety officer, said during the town hall meeting.

The state Health Department’s website, however, does say that one should “wear a mask in the company of others” to protect those who are over 70 or who have compromised immune systems.

An MTA driver navigates a B26 bus in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, March 23, 2020.
An MTA driver navigates a B26 bus in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, March 23, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Patafio, who represents bus drivers, filed a safety grievance Monday against the MTA, challenging the agency’s position that masks are not personal protective equipment for bus drivers.

“It’s not like every member wants a mask — some of them have their own,” Patafio said. “But if I have a dozen people asking for a mask, give it out.”

Earlier this month, the MTA cleared bus and subway workers to wear masks as a precaution after the union put up a fight against a previous ban.

TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano said masks and gloves need to be found and distributed to transit workers.

“While we recognize there is a nationwide shortage, we are telling MTA leaders they must keep trying to secure supplies for the men and women who move New York,” Utano said in a statement.

Concern About Contact

Even with the new separation of operators and passengers, bus drivers and supervisors told THE CITY there is concern over close contact with customers in wheelchairs who need to be secured on the bus and can still board through the front door.

“When we strap them in, we don’t know who’s coughing or sneezing,” said Ravindra Kumar, 50, a Brooklyn bus driver for 15 years. “All we’re asking for is to be protected.”

“We’re on the front lines, but we don’t want to be on the receiving end of this,” said another veteran Brooklyn bus driver who asked not to be identified. “You’re just trying to do your job, but it feels like they don’t want to offer you the tools.”

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