“This has been a horror story. Nobody saw this coming, and we had to deal with it day by day and figure it out.” — ATU President John Costa. 

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, almost 5,000 of the Amalgamated Transit Union 200,000 members have been infected, more than 15,000 laid off, and at least 148 died, says union President John Costa. 

“This has been a horror story,” he told LaborPress. “Nobody saw this coming, and we had to deal with it day by day and figure it out.”

The ATU, based in Silver Spring, Md., represents public-transit workers in the United States and Canada; intercity, charter, and school-bus drivers; and paratransit drivers for the elderly and disabled. In the New York area, its three locals have more than 20,000 members, including city bus drivers in Staten Island and parts of Queens and more than 10,000 school-bus workers. 

In New York, “we were losing two or three a day for a while, and the infections were spreading like crazy,” Costa says. “We have orphans out there now.”

Public transportation and long-distance buses largely stayed on the road, but schools shutting down put school-bus drivers out of work for months. The layoffs have “subsided somewhat,” Costa adds, but the “over-the-road” charter business is still slow. In New Jersey, where the ATU has about 10,000 members, the DeCamp charter and commuter bus company suspended service indefinitely last August.

For drivers still working, the risk of infection was obvious, Costa says, and bus operators often suffer ailments that could make COVID worse, like high blood pressure and kidney problems. While transit workers were lauded as essential workers “risking our lives for the economy and the people,” the ATU had to fight to get respect in more concrete forms.

“We had to take over and dictate what was common sense and best practices for safety,” Costa says. “We didn’t want to shut the industry down and the economy down, but at the same time, we needed support to keep it going and get frontline workers to the hospitals and stores.”

Last July, Transdev, the French company that runs New Orleans city buses, agreed to give drivers up to $2,000 in hazard pay, one day before ATU Local 1560 was going to picket the regional transit authority’s offices. In October, Local 26 members in Detroit went on strike for three days after a city bus driver was suspended for getting into a fight with a passenger who refused to wear a mask or get off. 

But in New York, ATU bus drivers did not get the same raises as drivers from the larger Transport Workers Union. And when Boston public schools reopened in March, teachers could get vaccinated, but drivers couldn’t, “and meantime, we take all the students to school.”

The Biden administration, Costa says, has brought his members hope. The President’s infrastructure bill would appropriate $85 billion for public transportation, as well as $20 billion to electrify school buses. And his order mandating masks for all riders on public transit “is a big help, because our members were in the middle of political fights on the buses, being abused and having to be mask police.”

“I’m hoping the vaccines are kicking in,” he says, “and we get back to normal services.” 


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