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Can U.S. transit workers be kept safe on crowded buses and trains?

U.S. transit workers have been hit hard by the coronavirus. More than 120 have died from the disease just within New York City Transit, and drivers and transport workers represent the second-largest share of work-related cases, according to a Harvard study. Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, joins William Brangham to discuss reducing risks for these essential workers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now: how transit workers in this country have been hit particularly hard.

    Drivers and transport workers represent the second highest percentage of work-related cases of COVID-19.

    William Brangham will talk about those risks.

    But let's begin by hearing from four workers still on the job.

  • Wendy Loccisano:

    My name is Wendy Loccisano, and I am a station agent with the New York City Transit Authority.

  • William Mora:

    My name is William Mora, and I'm a subway conductor.

  • Latasha Giardina:

    My name is Latasha Giardina, and I'm a bus operator.

  • Chris Moralez:

    My name is Chris Moralez, and I am also a bus driver.

  • Latasha Giardina:

    I have days where I'm just crying on the bus. I'm afraid to bring it home. I have children. I have a husband who is older.

  • Chris Moralez:

    You don't know if you're getting into a contaminated bus or contaminated area. You just have to treat everything like it is contaminated. So, it makes it very stressful. It makes it stressful because we don't have the correct PPEs.

  • William Mora:

    I'm an ex-Marine. So, I mean, stress, I have dealt with stress. This feels different because the enemy is invisible. We don't know who the enemy is. We can't see it.

  • Wendy Loccisano:

    I had COVID. You try to say, you know what? Whatever is meant to be will be. I got through it the first time.

    I still have a job to do. I have to get paid. I have kids to fed. You can't — you can't live life every day being scared. But when I hear somebody that I know died, you just say to yourself, is it — is it worth it?

  • William Mora:

    There is no funeral. We can't attend any funerals. So, I think that's the hard part of this. Yes, we know he — they passed away, but there's no, like, real closure. Like, there's no way for us to pay proper respect.

  • Wendy Loccisano:

    It hasn't numbed me at all. It just — it gets me sad. But then the anger hits.

    And it's like you start questioning everything that was done, that could — could it have been done differently? Could the governor, could the mayor, could MTA management, could anybody maybe stop some of the deaths that did happen, if they would have prepared and maybe outfitted us sooner, instead of — I mean, they just — they just — they weren't — they weren't ready.

  • Chris Moralez:

    Some of us are in our buses from eight to nine hours a day. They give us one set of gloves.

    I don't bring a lunch anymore. For eight-and-a-half-hours, I do not eat lunch because, I don't know if I'm contaminating myself by eating the lunch.

    They just passed the order that anybody that rides transit has to wear a mask. Again, we're in a position that we cannot enforce that. All we can do is educate and accommodate. They're never good at putting policies in place that will — that will be functional for you as an operator out in the street.

  • Latasha Giardina:

    They actually just reopened, like, the parks. They just reopened, like, the beaches.

    I mean, it's gotten out of control. Like, the people have come out like it never happened. I think reopening was the worst thing they could have made. It's not the right time for it. It's really not the right time for it. So, it's definitely putting a strain on us.

  • William Mora:

    Transit is the lifeline of New York City. Without us, nothing moves. But we don't get — we — often, we don't get appreciated as much.

  • Latasha Giardina:

    We get these people to the doctors, to the hospital, to their jobs, to the grocery store. If they didn't have us, they would not be able to get to these places that were so important.

  • Wendy Loccisano:

    Think about what you say and how you say it, because, people, we're out there, we're trying, we're trying really hard.

    And just smile. Even just a simple smile, a little wave goes just a long way down there. I think people now, maybe after all this, will appreciate each other just a little more. I think you will give that extra smile, that extra, hey, nice to see you again, just because you are really happy to see them.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on the central role that public transportation plays in society and some of the concerns about safeguarding workers and passengers, I'm joined now by Sarah Feinberg. She's the interim president of New York City Transit, which oversees all the subways and buses in that big city.

    Sarah Feinberg, thank you very much for being here.

    You just heard some of those voices of transit workers all over the country and the concerns they have about going back to work in this pandemic.

    Can you help us — how do you guarantee that those workers will be safe, so that we can reopen?

  • Sarah Feinberg:

    Yes, thank you for having me.

    So, look, it is — this has been unprecedented for the city of New York, for the state of New York. But this has also been an unprecedented crisis for New York City Transit.

    So, New York City Transit is made up of 53,000 men and women who show up every day to operate buses and to operate trains and to get people safely from one place to the other.

    So, reassurances that I can give is that we are doing everything we can possibly do to keep people as safe and healthy as we as we can. So, we are distributing massive amounts of personal protective equipment, gloves, masks, suits, face shields, hand sanitizer.

    We are cleaning and disinfecting our stations and our trains and our rail cars, you know, sometimes two, four, six, seven times a day. We are testing new cleaning solutions, new cleaning tools, so that we make sure we're using the best products.

    So I can give people assurances on all those fronts. You know, I can't give them assurances and promise that their federal government will step up. I can't promise them that the guidance that we will get from the CDC will be perfect.

    You know, at the beginning of this pandemic, for weeks, the CDC told us not to distribute masks, because, you know, they were only for sick people and that they wouldn't help the healthy.

    Well, we eventually decided to go out on our own and distribute masks anyway. So, I can reassure people that I will continue to do everything I can possibly do to keep them safe. And I can tell them that I hope that I will have federal partners that will do the same.

  • William Brangham:

    What about the issue of hazard pay? As you know, there's a lot of workers who feel that the work they are doing is demonstrably hazardous and they ought to be compensated for that.

    Is that a possibility?

  • Sarah Feinberg:

    Absolutely.

    I think myself and the CEO of MTA were the first ones to call for hazard pay, amazingly, even before the unions did. I absolutely believe that the folks who are operating the system and cleaning the system deserve hazard pay.

    And the federal government should step up and should create a fund for it. The governor and others have called for a heroes compensation fund, similar to after 9/11. Absolutely, the Congress should act, and they should act now, and they should send hazard pay to our workers.

  • William Brangham:

    If the city reopens in full, and people start going back to being on buses and subways at the regularity that anyone who's been in New York City knows what those are like, how do you guarantee that people are not too crowded together on buses and subway trains, so that they then are spreading the virus themselves?

  • Sarah Feinberg:

    We're New York City. We're the largest — and we're MTA. We're the largest transportation system in North America, not just on the East Coast, not just in the country, in all of North America.

    So it's not really a question for us on whether the ridership comes back. It's when and how quickly and to what degree. People need the transit system in New York. A lot of people don't have cars. Congestion is so bad in this city that it would — you know, it wouldn't work if you had a car.

    And so the transit system is an absolute requirement that it function and function well in New York City. So, riders will come back.

    But, to your point, it's important for folks to understand that an expectation of six feet is going to be a tough one to ever meet in New York City and, in fact, to ever meet in most cities, and ever to meet in most transit systems.

    We are talking a lot — we spend a lot of time talking about the social distance of six feet, plus a mask. And that is great. That is absolutely ideal. As the city opens up, as the economy opens back up, six feet is not going to be an option really for anyone in a lot of places in the city.

    And so our advice is going to be, set expectations, be vigilant about your mask usage, and put as much distance between yourself and the person next to you as you can, and give yourself a break.

    Look, it's important for people to realize — I know everyone wants to get where they're going quickly, efficiently, on time. It's really important for people to understand that the most important thing is to keep themselves healthy and safe.

    And so, if you have to wait for the next bus, if you have to wait for the next train, if the situation is crowded, and you want to walk a little bit, and then take the next train, that's going to be a better solution for everyone.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Sarah Feinberg of New York City Transit, thank you very, very much.

  • Sarah Feinberg:

    Yes, thank you.

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