transit

MTA Employee Virus Hotline Bolstered After Crush of Calls

An MTA worker waits to cross Delancey Street, March 30, 2020.
An MTA worker waits to cross Delancey Street, March 30, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Subway and bus workers with coronavirus concerns overwhelmed an MTA employee hotline with thousands of calls daily — forcing the agency to bring in 200 additional operators.

But more people fielding calls — including from employees who fear they may have the virus or are working with someone who does — hasn’t led to quick action, union officials said.

“You’re able to get through now,” said Eric Loegel, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100. “But the problem now is getting a follow-up call. You’re very lucky if you get a call back at this point.”

The agency has suffered eight worker deaths stemming from the global pandemic.

The MTA reported this week that 582 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, with more than 3,330 of its 70,000-member workforce in quarantine. MTA Chairperson Patrick Foye is among the New Yorkers who have tested positive.

8,000 Calls a Day

The MTA initially staffed its 24-hour COVID-19 hotline with 50 in-house workers to provide employees guidance on quarantine status and answer other general questions.

But it was overrun last week by up to 8,000 calls a day — spelling long wait times and spurring the MTA to amend its contract with Global Contact Services, the company that runs its paratransit call center in Queens.

“We found the wait time on the newly created hotline to be unacceptable and took immediate action to remedy this issue,” said Abbey Collins, an MTA spokesperson. “We quickly brought in an outside expert and 200 additional highly skilled staff, which has resulted in average wait times being cut by 99% to under a minute.”

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

Collins said the number of calls to the coronavirus hotline has dropped by a quarter since last week’s peak. But several transit workers told THE CITY that follow-up calls from the agency’s human resources and occupational health services units have been delayed by days or were never made.

The average wait time on Tuesday for a call to be answered was 58 seconds, Collins said, and five calls placed to the hotline by THE CITY were all answered in under two minutes. But the union says those initial calls aren’t the issue.

“In the beginning I was telling members, they’re overwhelmed, they’re working through it,” said Nelson Rivera,  administrative vice president with TWU Local 100. “But it got to the point where they weren’t calling people for seven days.”

‘Not a Medical Provider’

A 40-year-old subway car inspector at the Coney Island Yard’s subway maintenance shop told THE CITY he called the hotline Friday because he had been in contact with someone who tested positive.

On Saturday, the car inspector said, he woke up with a fever and a cough, but he said he’s yet to get a call in return. He asked that his name not be used.

“They’re not investigating who was in close contact and as a result, those people may have continued to come to work and exposed others,” said Eugene Leybobich, a union representative at the Coney Island shop.

The MTA has been urging workers who feel sick to stay home and to call their health care provider or the state’s coronavirus hotline if they can’t reach the one set up by the transit agency.

“The MTA is not a medical provider and we are doing everything we can to ensure our employees have access to the information they need as quickly as possible,” Collins said.

‘People are Scared’

Every employee who has reported they are positive or has come into contact with someone who has the virus has been put on precautionary quarantine, the MTA says.

“Let me tell you, people are scared,” Rivera said.

In recent days, transit employees have complained about not getting enough protective equipment, including N95 masks. Transit officials say they’ve secured 75,000 masks.

The subways, buses and commuter rail lines are running to help get other frontline workers to their jobs, even as overall ridership has plummeted by nearly 90%.

The MTA hotline isn’t the only phone service to be swamped during the pandemic.

Calls to the city’s 911 system have surged recently, and the state’s budget director reported that phone calls about unemployment are up by more than 150 times their usual number — with more 1.2 million alone on Monday.

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