The MTA in New York City and the surrounding suburbs employs 74,000 workers. It has disclosed that there are 23 people who have tested positive for the Covid-19. Leo is one of 7,000 workers in his division.
Leo is 37 years old. He works as a train conductor for the MTA, mostly on the D line which runs from 205thstreet in the Bronx all the way to Coney Island in Brooklyn. He operates the doors, directs customers about changes in service and makes sure that no one is dragged by the train or tries to hurt themselves or others by accident or otherwise. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter and is also a caretaker for his extended family members. He recently had a scare with the Covid-19 virus and was told by his supervisors to come in person to work “to report it.”
I talked to Leo on the phone on Friday, March 20th. It was his day off and he expects to return to work tomorrow first thing in the morning. His speech was interrupted by fits of coughing.
HC: Leo can you tell me a little bit about what happened to you these past couple of days.
Well, I was hanging out this weekend with my boy, who is also an MTA employee. We were drinking. After hanging out, my voice was shot and I started coughing but I didn’t think much of it. Two days later I am on my way to work still coughing. And then just as I am about to enter my job, I get a text from my boy.
“This is an emergency give me a call.” So, I did. He told me that he had been hanging out with another co-worker of ours who was hospitalized and tested positive for the corona virus. She felt terrible about it of course and was texting everyone she came into contact with including my friend (who’s this?). So, my boy contacted me to tell me on Tuesday when I was heading into work. This is how I found out about the situation. Me and him are close. He felt bad. He knows my wife and my daughter. He himself doesn’t have symptoms but he told me to get tested.
I was so scared and anxious. I have a young daughter, a wife, an older mother. A million things were racing through my mind. So, the first thing I do is that I call the sick desk. I say, hey listen I may have been in contact with someone who was exposed to the coronavirus.
“Well come into work and you can call out in person once you get here. ” he tells me.
“Wait, what? You want me to go to work and call out there. I don’t get that.”
“Well that’s the procedure,” he says.
I said “Jesus.” So, I talked to a superintendent who told me “Yea, go to the front don’t worry.”
HC: What? That’s crazy, did they want to take the train too?
I know right! I couldn’t believe they wanted me to go to work to report it in person. So, I decided to call out instead and go to urgent care. When I get there, I told the doctor the whole story. But they only asked me if I had fever and swabbed my throat make sure to make sure I didn’t have strep throat. The doctor then said I was all right to return to work. And he just gave me a note.
HC: So the doctor didn’t test you?
No. Can you believe that? I felt some type of way that the doctor didn’t even bother testing me. Ritchie Torres [a member of the New York City Council] was tested and he came out positive even though he didn’t even have symptoms But I was exposed and can barely talk and have a cough that won’t end and I don’t get a test? What if I have something? I felt really at that moment like the bottom of the barrel. Like really low on the totem pole, you know what I mean? But Ritchie, because he is a politician, he gets a test right away. You get priority because of your title. I just felt a way about that shit.
HC: So, what did you do?
Well I tried to fight it. I tried to call the crew room. This is the office you call if you need to call out sick and find out assignments. It’s a mess. Well first of all I couldn’t get through to anyone. And I wasn’t alone. I later found out that the many people were trying to get a hold of the crew room and they couldn’t. So they had to call control center which is in charge of the whole system. I also called MAC–which is the MTA doctors. But no one was returning my calls. I must have called and emailed a lot and they finally returned my messages last night at 8:59pm. The guy just asked me a bunch of questions, mostly what did the doctors say and if I had fever. I said I don’t have fever but I haven’t been tested and I’m scared I was exposed. The MAC guy said “No you are good to go to work.”
HC: Why did it take them so long to get back to you?
Well the crew room shut down because someone tested positive. But no one notified the workers or the unions. I was on hold for two hours and half. I called Coney Island and they told me that the number doesn’t work.
MTA workers, we are all freaking out because we are getting rumors from other co-workers that there were people testing positive. Meanwhile our union reps were sending us messages on Facebook that the crew office is not closed and that there were no active “confirmed positives.”
The message I got specifically says: “Do not go by rumors posted on Facebook, Twitter, in chat groups or crew room talk. Please stay safe, stay calm and tune out the noise. Your reps are working around the clock to stay on top of all aspects of this crisis.”
And then then the Daily News the next day reported it was true that the crew room was shut down because someone tested positive. This was out in Queens. About 30 employees are under self-quarantine now.
HC: Can you tell me a little bit more about what the crew room looks like and what your workplace is doing to ensure your safety when you return?
When we come to work, the whole space is basically one big open lunch-room area. This is the crew room. We sign in and now with the virus they give you latex gloves to grab and go and one big thing of sanitizer for all of us to share. It’s all they give us. I just got a text that we are going to be at half force and it’s going to be one week on and one week off. So we are also understaffed and have to probably work harder with less to protect us.
They want to compare us to first responders because we are considered essential workforce since we help transport people. But we have to deal with people who are infected with zero protection. You don’t know who is infected.
(Photo of the Crew Room)
HC: That must be so scary. Are there any cleaning protocols put in place?
It is terrifying. The problem is that the cleaners got their throats cut a while back. They fired a lot of them and outsourced the rest. They don’t do overtime now for instance. They do their straight hours and they leave. But now with the virus, they are in demand because they want them to do double time. They are hiring a lot of new hires to do this. Because the people that were doing it before who got cut said: “I am not doing this.”
They are saying they are disinfecting the trains every 72 hours. The D train is one of the dirtiest trains and I must say it’s a lot cleaner now. But still in 72 hours anything can happen. Anything! The virus stays on surfaces.
And on top of that you have to buy your own stuff. I have my own bottle of disinfectant that I bought with my own money in my locker just in case. I have never used it until this scare. I even brought it back home maybe my wife needs it to clean the house. But now I brought it back to work.
Also we don’t wear masks.
Well, in the beginning of the outbreak they were not allowing us to wear masks and they took people out of service if they did that. But once it became a big thing then they started to allow people to wear masks. We were just trying to protect ourselves.
HC: How do you think your union is dealing with all of this?
They are not. When I talked to my union rep. he told me that there’s only two women in the Office of Occupational Health (OHS) handling all 7,000 members. The union is telling us it’s useless to use masks and gloves but you gotta do something. My brother is a cop and at least they get a travel size hand sanitizer. We don’t even get that.
Right now our union is in shambles. We are short staffed in my division–the RTO. I just got word that another female worker tested positive. She is around the train guys that move the construction material around.
I’m really scared. For both myself and my fellow co-workers. A lot of the guys I work with they are almost at retirement age. They are in their 60s, they are asthmatic, in poor condition and all day long they are moving the trains. The last thing they need is to catch this and this could really mess with their lives.
The crew rooms are crowded with workers. We are in close quarters with each other; our lockers are next to each other. Now that’s in the system and our co-workers have it they have more that fear.
Things are so messed up. We have to do something about this! I hope my story can be helpful to others.
Over the next days and weeks we hope to publish more stories like this. We want to highlights everyday people’s fears and anxieties about workplace safety, unemployment and housing issues, struggles with paying bills and taking care of their loved ones as well as any acts of solidarity and collective action in these very difficult times. We want to hear from you! If you have a story that you want to share with us please email the editor at email@example.com.
Represents conductors, train operators and towers that give signals.