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Despite Changes To Service, CTtransit Bus Drivers Remain Concerned About Their Safety

CT transit bus
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
The view outside Union Station in Hartford, Connecticut, on March 13, 2020.

As the Department of Transportation continues to make adjustments to CTtransit service and policies, some bus operators feel as though they’re still at risk of carrying or contracting the coronavirus.

On Friday, the DOT announced that cash would no longer be accepted on CTtransit buses and trains. Internally, bus operators were given notice that they do not have to enforce the fare collection policy. The combination of announcements follows the agency’s mandate that requires passengers to board buses from the back until further notice to reduce contact with drivers.

Maria Maldonado, who’s driven CTtransit buses for 15 years, said these measures don’t directly address the issue she and others face — driving with more than 10 passengers on a bus.

“Now we’re going to have more passengers on the bus for the fact that they’re going to be riding for free,” Maldonado said. “We don’t know who’s carrying the virus. And we pick up all different people, and we pick up passengers out there — we don’t know who’s sick and not sick.”

Last week, a co-worker told her about a group of 15 teens who rode around on the bus for hours. Maldonado thinks service should be fully suspended, at least temporarily.

“Why can’t they give us that opportunity for us to stay home, at least for two weeks?” Maldonado said. “So that every person out there, the public, could stay home.”

Maldonado said they’ve been supplied only with gloves and, briefly, before the stock ran out, hand sanitizer. A DOT official said drivers have been provided both gloves and masks. Maldonado says the break room where they used to be able to relax has been closed down, leaving drivers to stand outside or sit in their cars. Plus, she said, additional sick leave has not been offered.

“They’re not treating us the way that we’re supposed to be treated,” Maldonado said. “The company is treating us not as human beings, they’re treating us as numbers.”

In an email, DOT Communications Director Kevin Nursick said the department is “following advisement of public health officials and applying those measures to our operations.”

“I can’t emphasize enough that transit employees have shown stellar professionalism in the face of this evolving situation,” Nursick said.

Ralph Buccitti is a former CTtransit bus driver who works as the business manager for Local 281, New Haven’s Amalgamated Transit Union chapter.

Buccitti said he’s disappointed and concerned by what he feels is a lack of communication and transparency from the DOT.

“I think the lack of sharing the information with employees is just causing a lot of anxiety and panic,” Buccitti said. “The DOT and the management team needs to share with their employees that we’ve had individuals that may have come in contact with it.”

According to Buccitti, four drivers in New Haven have self-quarantined, including two who were instructed to do so by their doctors. 

“Management is not taking responsibility,” Buccitti said. “Membership is looking to the union leadership and we don’t run CTtransit, we don’t run the DOT, so we can’t make any decisions on what folks need to do or should do.”

In an email, Nursick said the agency does not notify bus operators if another operator is directed to self-quarantine or tests positive for COVID-19. To his knowledge, there hasn’t been a confirmed case among bus drivers. He said, however, that they are “in constant contact with all of the service providers.”

“The CTDOT, service providers, and their respective management are maintaining the highest levels of communication as is possible given the unprecedented and rapidly changing circumstances that we are all contending with,” Nursick said.

Buccitti is also concerned for the CTtransit employees who have to clean the buses after hours of transporting passengers throughout the state. He said they need head-to-toe protective gear, including goggles, jumpsuits and shoe covers, much like doctors and nurses.

“They’re dealing with buses that are coming off the road, possible exposure to this unreported coronavirus,” Buccitti said. 

Maldonado said her co-workers think about striking but ultimately choose not to because it’s something they’d be penalized for, according to their union contract. Buccitti thinks a strike could backfire.

“That’s our concern is that we take a position saying, ‘hey — you need to close this down, you need to stop the bus service from running,’” Buccitti said. “And then they reevaluate and do a mass layoff.”

While the DOT did not comment on whether that’s an action it would take in the event of a strike, Nursick did say keeping public transit running is imperative during “this unprecedented situation.”

“The intent is not to bring essential public transit services to a halt, but on the contrary, to maintain continuity of service,” Nursick said. “That is the priority — keeping it running, not shutting it down.”

Ryan Lindsay has been asking questions since she figured how to say her first few words. She eventually figured out that journalism is the profession where you can and should always ask questions.

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