(This story was originally published on June 1st, 2020, by THE CITY.)
Train operators and conductors have recorded the highest number of COVID-19 infections among subway workers, according to internal documents obtained by THE CITY.
Of the 1,937 employees in New York City Transit’s Department of Subways who had reported testing positive for coronavirus as of May 28, 285 are train operators and 178 are conductors, the latest records show.
“It’s the environment we work in, with so many people on trains,” said conductor William Mora, who tested positive in April. “We were basically working in an incubator.”
The records came to light as Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday outlined plans to begin reopening the city starting June 8. He said trains are safe, while telling New Yorkers “it’s up to you” on how to travel.
Since the city virtually shut down in mid March, subway ridership fell, at some points, by more than 90%. Last month, officials closed the longtime round-the-clock system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for an overnight scrubdown that forced homeless people from stations and trains.
The subways and buses remained operating primarily to transport essential workers, officials said.
As part of the rollout to eventually resume regular subway service, frequency was increased May 27 on the 6, 7, D, L and N lines, an MTA spokesperson said. With more workers going back on duty and ridership beginning to inch up, service had already been increased on several other lines and restored on the C in recent days.
The MTA’s workforce has been slammed during the pandemic — as of Thursday, 127 employees had died as a result of the virus, a spokesperson said, among them 83 of them subway or Staten Island Railway workers and 40 bus employees. The Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North suffered two worker deaths apiece.
Meanwhile, more than 9,500 MTA employees have returned to work after being out because of coronavirus.
While train operators and conductors have registered the most positive tests, smaller groups of employees, including structure maintainers, train service supervisors, tower operators and subway car maintenance supervisors reported testing positive at slightly higher rates.
Hubs of Infections Cited
The preliminary infection figures, which the MTA says are not yet confirmed, were included in an accounting of which subway workers, by job titles, have reported getting sick — and where they work throughout the sprawling system.
Some subway hubs logged numerous COVID-19 cases:
- At Brooklyn’s Coney Island complex, the MTA’s largest facility, the documents show 154 workers reported testing positive for COVID-19, including 37 car inspectors, 25 train operators and 21 conductors.
- At the 207th Street complex in Upper Manhattan, which includes a subway maintenance shop and railyard, 65 employees reported testing positive. Among them: 33 car inspectors, 10 car equipment maintenance supervisors, six train operators and two conductors.
- At West 4th Street in Manhattan, 51 employees — including 33 structure maintainers and four plumbing supervisors — reported testing positive for COVID-19.
At many subway facilities, only a single positive test was reported, the documents show.
‘Let’s See What Happens’
In early March, just before the state shut down all non-essential business, the MTA lifted its ban on masks being worn by subway workers following pushback from Transport Workers Union Local 100.
The MTA, whose top officials said they had been following medical guidance on masks, later distributed more than two million masks to transit workers.
“We always believed, from the very beginning, that our workers had a right to wear a mask,” said Eric Loegel, the TWU Local 100 representative for train operators and conductors. “By late March, a lot of damage had been done already.”
Train workers also had to contend with cramped crew quarters at some terminals, where social distancing proved difficult.
“Train operators, we have to deal with the homeless, we have to deal with the sick customers,” said Kenrick Lever, 43, a train operator who’s been on sick leave from work since late March, and tested positive for COVID-19 in April. “We deal with a high concentration of the public, compared with all the other employees.”
Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesperson, said the transit agency was dedicated to protecting its workforce.
“Our commitment to distribute personal protective equipment to our frontline employees started at the very beginning of March, and our efforts have not slowed down procuring millions of pieces of PPE to guarantee they feel safe,” he said. “Our work continues non-stop to supply our brave and resilient workforce with what they need.”
But as riders return to the subway, train workers who have already endured the virus said they are wary that the MTA will be able to maintain increased disinfecting and cleaning efforts.
“They can do that now because you have so few people riding the trains,” said Lever, who has yet to return to work. “Let’s see what happens the week the city reopens.”