“Every morning I wake up and one of the hardest things I have to do is to try to keep this updated,” he wrote April 7, when the death toll was 41. “Every time I have to add a name, my heart loses a beat. . . . Why is this happening? Why were we not better prepared? How many more members will we have to lose?”
By Cruz’s count, 129 New York City transit workers have died of covid-19.
Across the country, an estimated 430,000 public transit workers, including train operators and bus drivers like Cruz, have kept systems operating, moving essential workers such as doctors, nurses and first responders who have been hailed as heroes. By comparison, the lower-paid and largely minority transit workers said they are often abused by riders and insufficiently protected by their employers.
As offices, stores and restaurants reopen in the coming days and weeks, trains and buses will almost certainly see more passengers. For transit workers, the return to normal life only exacerbates their fears.
“We run the risk of bringing that virus back into our houses, infecting our children, our wives, our husbands, our parents,” said John Samuelsen, president of Transport Union Workers International. “We’re not health-care professionals, but health-care professionals wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing without transit workers.”
No transit system in the nation has been as hard hit by the pandemic as New York City’s and its 74,000 workers. At least 10,000 Metropolitan Transit Authority employees have been quarantined during the outbreak.
The novel coronavirus has sickened or killed transit workers in nearly every major system in the country. Transit and union officials — many of whom were slow to recognize the threat that the virus posed to their workforces — have scrambled to implement new safety measures such as more frequent cleanings, adjusting boarding processes to isolate drivers and requiring passengers to wear face coverings.
Such measures may have helped slow the virus’s spread, but they have not done much to lessen the anxiety of transit employees who have lost co-workers, infected family members and are regularly being asked to take unprecedented risks.
In Seattle, a bus driver who recently lost his wife, who also was a driver, is left to raise three children while he contemplates continuing in a job that may have exposed his wife to the virus that killed her. In the District, where 81 Metro workers have tested positive for coronavirus as of Friday, a bus operator who spent three weeks fighting covid-19 recently returned to work, but with mental scars that make her afraid of everything she touches or any cough or sneeze she hears on board.
On the Facebook page where Cruz posts his list, workers routinely complain that they feel pressured to return to work too soon after their symptoms abate, and they routinely worry that the transportation authority’s stepped up efforts at cleaning buses and trains are not good enough.
“Some MTA employees have said we signed up for this,” Cruz said. “No one signed up to report to work knowing that we are all getting exposed and possibly bringing the virus back home to our loved ones.”
Agencies address fears
Transit officials countered that they have moved faster than most government agencies to protect workers, even going beyond recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The MTA has been a global leader in protecting the health and safety of our employees,” Sarah Feinberg, interim president of the MTA NYC Transit, said in a statement.
Since the outbreak began, the MTA has distributed more than 1.4 million N95 masks to drivers, 3.5 million pairs of gloves and more than 17,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, the agency said.
In April, the transit authority raised a death benefit for family members of any workers who die of covid-19 to $500,000. And on May 6, it began shutting down the subway from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily for deep cleaning — the first planned overnight shutdown in the system’s 115-year history.
The agency also established a “Temperature Brigade” to check for early signs of the virus in the workforce and even lobbied Costco to include MTA employees among front-line workers receiving priority access to stores.
Still, transit agencies nationwide have struggled to address the fear and mistrust among their workforces. In Washington, Metro, the nation’s second-busiest transit system, sudden bus driver shortages and increased absences in late March were part of the reason the system was forced to cut service to just 25 routes on at least two occasions.
The biggest challenge for transit agencies has been protecting bus operators, whose pay nationally averages $21.74 an hour and who have been hit hardest by the virus. While the overall number of Metro workers infected make up a small fraction of the transit agency’s 12,000 employees, half of those who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus work among the public, including Transit Police, operators, janitors and station managers. Of 81 employees infected, 20 have been bus operators. More than 500 workers have been quarantined.
Among the ill was Latisa Holmes, who remembers the fever, headache, aches and pains hitting her like a wave in mid-March.
It felt, she said, as if she had been put in an oven. She struggled to breathe — it was like a brick was being pounded on her chest, she said. And she had disorienting headaches. She watched the news as the death toll rose, worried that she was next.
“I saw people dying having underlying health issues,” she said. “I said that could be me because I have high blood pressure. I began to panic more because I realized that I might die.”
Her son, a typically stoic and unfazed teenager, stood outside her bedroom door crying.
“All I could say to him with a tone of affirmation is, ‘Your mother is not going to die,’ ” she said, though she herself was unsure and prayed constantly.
Metro, meanwhile, raced to institute changes to protect and win back the confidence of its drivers. It cut service hours and routes, required passengers to board through the rear doors, waived fares and roped off the first few seats on buses to lessen contact between drivers and riders.
Many of the changes were brought about through pressure from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.
“One of the biggest things that we did very early was we worked very closely with the union, particularly 689, our largest union, but also the others, and really started to think about it from the perspective of that bus operator, that mechanic, that rail operator, that station manager, and come at it from that perspective,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said.
Transit agencies around the country took similar steps.
Some cities, such as Atlanta and Detroit, went further, deciding to compensate drivers for the increased risk in much the same way the military pays soldiers extra for combat duty. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, relying on the money it received as part of the $2 trillion federal bailout package, distributed a one-time $500 “hero” bonus to more than 3,500 of its workers. It passed out surgical masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes, in addition to giving drivers $75 stipends to spend on supplies, spokeswoman Stephany Fisher said. MARTA also has provided an extra 80 hours of sick leave for employees infected by covid-19, free testing and counseling to deal with stress.
In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, frustrated and angry transit workers have sued over a lack of protective equipment and challenged Transit Director Alice Bravo to ride the bus so she can see firsthand the lack of social distancing, sanitizer and adequate face masks for drivers. Their battle cry on social media: #RideNotDie.
Bravo declined to say whether she has ridden a bus during the pandemic, but she said she has spoken to hundreds of drivers to address their needs. Like other agencies, Miami-Dade transportation officials scrambled to get enough personal protective equipment for drivers. While the agency acknowledges that it did not initially have enough masks, Bravo said the agency quickly recovered.
“The minute we got our hands on supplies, we distributed them and started using them,” she said. “We even have hand sanitizer dispensers on our buses now. I know for a fact we are doing everything other agencies in other cities are doing, and I know we are doing some things other agencies aren’t even doing.”
Calls for more support for transit workers have been bolstered by national coalitions led by the NAACP and the TransitCenter, a foundation for transit research and advocacy, which have pressed Congress and the White House for hazard pay and more protective equipment for transit workers.
The NAACP views transit workers as essential to helping the unemployed find jobs, while public transportation helps people, already burdened by high mortgage or rent payments, keep costs down.
Some union officials blamed years of budget cuts for the inadequate protection of workers. Transit agencies, for example, could have purchased buses with sealed-off compartments for drivers — similar to models used throughout Europe, said John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, North America’s largest transportation workers guild.
Even before the pandemic, unions insisted such measures were needed to protect drivers in the wake of several high-profile attacks on drivers. Many agencies, including Metro in the nation’s capital, have retrofitted buses with clear shielding, but union officials say the vehicles, which cost upward of $500,000, can be built with separate cabs that could have afforded greater protection.
“For the money we pay for buses, the way they’re designed, we should have had them enclosed,” Costa said.
Costa said that less than half of his members have the masks, gloves and disinfectant they need, and he warned that strikes are possible if agencies don’t respond to worker concerns.
Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has similar worries about shortages of protective gear and workers who feel forgotten.
“Hopefully the American public will recognize that more,” DeFazio said. “I mean, they certainly would recognize it if transit went away.”
DeFazio said he’s pushing for Washington to help pay for protective compartments on buses and has called for more federal aid to be directed to transit in a second massive stimulus bill that lawmakers are considering.
Such drivers as Holmes, who recently returned to work at Metro after fighting covid-19 for nearly three weeks, are painfully aware of the stakes. “I think no one knew that we were the front-line people, also,” Holmes said. “It’s like they forgot about us and that we’re risking our lives every day.”
Holmes said she recovered physically before she was mentally able to return to work. Day by day, the aches began to subside and her chest began to open.
But she noticed that she would cry suddenly for no reason. Her doctor advised her that it was normal for a person who has suffered trauma.
Her bosses at Metro told her to take as much time as she needed, and the agency referred her to a therapist, who helped her cope.
She started to feel less and less like she was going to die every time she closed her eyes. She worried less about a stranger’s cough or sneeze.
One of her biggest fears when she returned to work was whether her co-workers would treat her as if she had an infectious disease. Those worries went away on her first day.
“When I see you I see hope,” her supervisor told her.
But on May 6, Holmes learned she would need to be quarantined for another two weeks. Her 17-year-old son had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“I’m just lost for words right now,” she said.
A list that keeps growing
When Cruz started his list of dead New York City transit workers, the MTA was reporting only seven deaths.
But Cruz, who was seeing and hearing about the deaths of colleagues online, worried the transit authority wasn’t keeping a good count.
“Every day it was another name and another name,” he said. “I thought we should know who these people are. We should be keeping track. He posted his list in a small Facebook group that he had built for his depot and encouraged his fellow drivers to share it as widely as possible.
Within a week it had grown to more than 41 names. The group also has grown to more than 700 transit workers who use it to pay tribute to their dead colleagues, organize and share their fears.
“To go into work is like walking into a death camp with all that’s going on around me,” one transit employee wrote in April. Another who drove through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Sandy called the pandemic “the scariest and most emotionally exhausting” stretch of her career.
“I’m only on day 8 of self quarantine,” another worker wrote. “My doctor told me to self-quarantine for 14 days,” one transit worker wrote recently.
That driver felt as though she was being pressured into going back to work earlier than her doctor advised.
In the early days of the pandemic, many objected to a transit authority directive ordering workers not to wear masks. At the time, the workers did not meet CDC guidelines for mask use.
Pressure from workers and the union forced the agency to change course in early March. MTA officials noted that they shifted their policy on masks before the CDC changed its guidance and ahead of other transit agencies.
For many MTA workers, though, the changes haven’t been enough. A popular meme shared among transit workers in Cruz’s group is a picture of the MTA shield with blood running down it. Every day, New York City drivers face grim reminders of the risk they face. For Robert Coleman, it is a recently erected sign at the end of his route that states an entrance is for funeral directors only.
“Keep in mind, there’s no funeral home there,” Coleman said. “I see trucks coming in, and when I see trucks coming in, I know this is where they drop off the bodies.”
Coleman, 53, is a survivor of nasopharyngeal cancer and underwent chemotherapy and radiation for seven months in 2009. Health officials have warned that cancer survivors are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
He remembers walking downstairs to get a mask and gloves at his bus garage just after the city began gearing up for the coronavirus and seeing a sign that explicitly said bus drivers did not qualify for the protective equipment. His friends at the New York Police Department repeatedly tell him, “I would never do your job,” he said.
He wonders why transit workers don’t qualify for the first responder discounts that are set aside for police and health-care workers.
“We don’t look for it,” he said, “but we do want to be appreciated like everyone else.”
With each passing day, Cruz’s list has continued to grow.
No. 18 on Cruz’s list is Darlisa Nesbitt, 51, who operated a train for the MTA for more than two decades and died on April 2.
She was just two years from retiring and had planned to join her extended family in Atlanta, where it was a “little quieter,” said her brother, the Rev. Charles E. Nesbitt.
When she became ill in March, Charles began organizing a daily conference call for family members to pray for her.
“She was having tremendous respiratory problems,” he said. “Could barely get her breath. She pretty much talked like she didn’t expect to survive this. So the conversation leaned more in the direction of, ‘I love you, and here are some things I want you to do.’ ”
Nesbitt left behind a 14-year-old daughter.
No. 39 on the list is Hesroni Cayenne, who died April 9. “He believed men had to go to work,” said his wife, Heather.
When the coronavirus outbreak hit New York, the 6-foot-tall native of Carriacou, a small island that is part of the Grenadine Islands, worried more about his wife’s health than his own. He pressed her to drive to her job as a nursing educator, rather than taking the train, where she was more likely to fall ill.
She worked days, and he worked nights at a shop in Brooklyn. Before he went to sleep each day, he typically cooked her an omelet with peppers, onions, tomatoes, sausage and cheese, and packed her a lunch. He called her “chunks,” a nickname he had given her when they met, symbolizing that she was a chunk of something special.
He fell ill in late March, complaining of the flu. A week later, Hesroni had trouble breathing. He died on April 9.
Hesroni and his wife acknowledged that working for the transit authority carried risks: terrorist attacks, storms, blackouts and fires. So did nursing.
“We both understood that,” Heather said. “When we took our jobs, we both understood we had to take the good with the bad.”
In late April, the transit authority began publishing a list of deceased transit workers; initially, it included only first names. To many drivers it was another sign that the city didn’t take their sacrifice seriously.
“That shouldn’t ever be a question,” Coleman said. “That shouldn’t even be a topic. It should be automatic. It should be automatic that we are respected for what we do.”
Cruz pleaded with the agency to change course, which it did a few days later. Cruz’s list typically includes more names than the city’s list because he updates it more often. These days the list has become a collective effort.
Often, fellow drivers will leave tips in the comments section for Cruz and his colleagues to chase.
“College Point Depot bus operator Harold (idk last name),” wrote one transit worker. “The union received notice on Monday.” The tip led them to Harold Germain, a bus operator who died April 16. He’s No. 37 on the list.
A few days later, another transit worker posted a picture of his co-worker Palawandir Singh. “It is a heavy heart that I announce the passing of my infrastructure supervisor,” he wrote. He became No. 69.
For Jalymeh Medina, who has helped Cruz collect the names of subway employees, the list is a means of humanizing the losses.
“People are dying so fast,” she said. “Every day, it is two or three more names, and it gets blurred after a while. It gets lost.”
For Cruz, it’s also a means of holding the transit agency accountable. On April 26, Cruz’s list cleared a milestone, adding its 100th name. “It’s just a sad day to see,” he said. “Out of all the agencies being affected, we are the worst, and I feel like all of that could’ve been avoided. If they’d provided us masks, people would be alive today who aren’t with us.”
He posted the list, as he always does, in the morning. “Nobody needs to see it right before going to bed,” he said. And he headed off to work.
Later that day, Cruz added two more names: Mitchell Rosenwasser, a 28-year veteran of the system who worked out of the Casey Stengel Depot, and Cuong Luu, an immigrant from Vietnam who worked for the transit system for 23 years. “Luu was a very quiet guy, but if you ever had an issue or a problem on the job he was the first one to come over and give you a hand,” one of his co-workers wrote.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.