New York, NY — Amalgamated Transit Local #1056 represents Bus Operators and Maintainers supporting routes within Queens, Bronx and Manhattan. Membership stands at 1,800. Covid hit the local hard, claiming the lives of 12 members. More than 250 contracted the virus — 15 of them contracted it twice.
LaborPress spoke with Sheikh Ullah, a Bus Operator who came on the job in April 2019, about his personal experience with the pandemic. Ullah works as a floater — his bus routes vary “depending on the needs for the day.”
“Once you have more time on the job, then you have the opportunity to pick a more set schedule,” he says. “When you’re new, you have to be a little bit more flexible.”
LP: You started your job 2019. So, you’d only been there about a year when the pandemic hit.
SU: Exactly. I was still in my first year when the pandemic started.
LP: What was it like for you, starting out at that time?
SU: It was very challenging, for sure. There was a lot of uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. Just what to expect and what not to expect at home and at work. I felt like there were so many different stages. Yeah, like the March, April, May of it was totally different than the June, July, August. And then of course, you know, every time the numbers [of riders] went up and down things went up and down at work as well.
LP: And initially, how long did it take you to get PPE?
SU: That was a real struggle for us because even though some operators had their own PPE, they were told not to wear masks, not to wear gloves while driving, while in service, while performing the job. We had a memorandum, like a bulletin, sent from our boss’s-boss’s- bosses. And all they just said is that ‘it’s not part of your uniform. So, if you’re wearing gloves, you are wearing a mask, then you will be subject to discipline.’ Yeah, so even with that there was a lot of uncertainty because every day there was different enforcement of different rules. Sometimes a manager or supervisor or someone you meet along the road, like a manager that might not even be your direct supervisor, would be okay with it or would be not okay with it. So, you had to deal with that overall. Am I gonna get in trouble for wearing PPE and then now it’s the opposite? Now it’s some people that don’t want to wear that PPE, and now they might get in trouble, for not wearing PPE while driving. But initially, yeah, cause I had surgical masks and things of that nature and I was told, ‘be careful about wearing that you might get in trouble’.
LP: And so what happened later on during the Delta variant and then into Omicron?
SU: At that point, I feel like we were already kind of more prepared, we were more ready for different obstacles, or, for ups and downs to come around. So, even when the ridership went down or up, everything became a little bit more normalized because by then, we’re all wearing masks and gloves. By the time Delta and Omicron came around, we had a barrier, extra barrier. It started out temporarily as a plastic sheet that we would roll up and down but now the actual door has a bar that slides front and back. So whenever you open the door, you can slide that door up. So you have extra Plexiglass that extends to the windshield, between the operator and the passengers when they’re riding.
LP: Did you get sick yourself, or anyone in your family through contact?
SU: I was very vigilant because I have my older, immunocompromised parents and then other family members. I didn’t test positive until the end of December ‘21. I was [highly] asymptomatic, but I had to quarantine. So, before that I was testing regularly and I never tested positive. And I also did the antibody test when it first came out like in 2020. The blood test came back with no antibodies every time I tested it. But it was really stressful to keep that going, to be hyper aware in different situations. How to keep your distance and make sure you’re not in any immunocompromised situations.
We work with about 500 different bus operators within the same depot. So depending on who you interact with, you know…most people wear their mask even when they’re on their breaks or before and after work when we talk to each other. We have a gym where I work, which a lot of people are using, but they are using it in the safest possible manner.