Subway and bus drivers in New York City say the government did too little, too late, to protect them from the coronavirus as thousands of their colleagues got sick and 98 died.

An MTA worker cleaning a subway station amid the coronavirus outbreak. New York City continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout as the Governor of New York announces the requirements to begin a careful step by step reopening of the state.Braulio Jatar / Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
  • Thousands of transportation workers in New York City have fallen ill with the coronavirus, which has crippled bus and train service.
  • Business Insider spoke with five MTA workers who revealed the inside story about how the agency has handled the pandemic.
  • The workers, subway and bus operators, say their fears weren't taken seriously, and that help from leaders came too late.
  • In response, the MTA said it has distributed more than a million masks and "continues to adapt" its response to the ongoing crisis.

As the coronavirus swept through the ranks of New York City's transportation workforce, employees began taking matters into their own hands.

And with nearly 100 dead and thousands more confirmed positive for COVID-19, subway operators, bus drivers, and other workers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, say their leaders did too little — too late — to prevent the losses.

"The transit workers have suffered the most casualties," Roberto Martinez, a bus operator, told Business Insider. "Why? Because we are in contact with more people on a daily basis."Advertisement

Martinez and four other MTA workers told "Business Insider Today" that the local and state response to the worst health crisis ever faced in America's largest and most densely populated city has left them feeling expendable.

Workers started falling ill in mid-March, leading to service cuts. The MTA's first positive case came just three days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the closure of all Broadway theatres and restrictions on events events with more than 500 people. It wasn't until five days later that Cuomo announced "New York on Pause," effectively shutting down all but essential businesses like hospitals, grocery stores, and restaurants.

MTA workers made signs by hand and cordoned off areas near their drivers' seats.MTA Employee
In the meantime, MTA workers, terrified of falling ill, stopped waiting around for personal protective equipment to arrive. They cordoned off areas around drivers seats, and brought their own disinfectant, masks, and gloves to work.
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They were met with threats of official discipline.

"They said 'if you decide that you want to wear personal protective equipment without a plan being in place from the governor of New York state, then you might be violating uniform policies and you could be questioned or addressed about it and maybe disciplined for it'," Nasar Abdurrahman, a New York City bus driver for nine years who recovered from the disease himself, said. The MTA told Business Insider in an email that no employee was ever disciplined for wearing a mask.Advertisement

Finally, on March 27, the MTA said it would provide 75,000 masks for workers. And two weeks later, Gov. Cuomo ordered all New Yorkers to wear masks in public. Buses, meanwhile, became free to ride and the areas near drivers officially chained off.

But for many transit workers, it was too late. We received an internal list created by MTA employees noting that about 10 transit workers had already died of COVID-19 by then.

While employees were given access to protective gear, Roberto and others say supplies were limited. Advertisement

"I'm on my bus and they gave me a paper bag. Inside that bag is one mask, one pair of gloves, and hand sanitizer," said Martinez, the bus operator. "Those three items are supposed to last five days."

Others said the agency quickly ran out.

"They dropped the ball," Kimberly McLaurin, a train operator, said. "When I came to work, there were no masks. I just happened to have my own, so I continued to work because I had my own. But there were no masks. They ran out of gloves. They ran out of hand sanitizer."Advertisement

All the while, a shortage of drivers and train crews due to sick employees caused interruptions with the skeleton of a service that was already running. In some cases, it led to crowded buses and trains where social distancing simply wasn't possible.

In response to the workers' claims, the MTA gave the following statement to Business Insider.

"As the biggest transportation system in the United States and despite worldwide supply shortages, the MTA has led the nation with the scope and scale of its COVID-19 response, distributing more than one million masks and breaking away from CDC guidance to recommend that all employees and riders wear masks before the CDC reversed course and recommended the same," a spokesperson said.Advertisement

"The MTA's aggressive efforts are designed to save lives as we continue to adapt to this dynamic and unprecedented pandemic."

Still, the deaths continued to tick up. By Friday, the number stood at 98, MTA boss Pat Foye said, as the agency prepared to take an unprecedented step: shutting down overnight service. The city that never sleeps will, on Wednesday May 6, have four hours of overnight quiet — underground at least — from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. During that service gap, every single bus and train will be disinfected. "In the 116 year history of the subway system going back to 1904 it has never closed as it will Wednesday morning at one o'clock," chairman Foye said on MSNBC Friday, according to a transcript provided by the agency. "We believe we've got an obligation to our employees, to our current riders, and to our future riders to take every step we can to assure public health, and that our system has been disinfected. "Advertisement

He also announced that the agency's board had approved a $500,000 family benefit for deceased employees.

"There has been a tragic toll obviously in New York City and New York State and across the nation, but, at the MTA 98 of our colleagues have succumbed to the virus," he said. "That is a tragic loss of life, we grieve and mourn the loss of every one of our colleagues."

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