• At least 50 MTA workers have been killed by the virus
  • MTA officials estimate the agency is losing about $125 million per week
  • 1,900 MTA workers have tested positive for coronavirus



The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc upon the lives of the 71,000 people who work in the public transport system of New York City, now the epicenter of the ongoing crisis.

As of Sunday, some 50 employees of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, have been killed by the virus.

The MTA, which encompasses subways, railways, buses, bridges and tunnels, has imposed reduced services since late March with fewer workers on duty.

As a result of the, ridership has shown extraordinary declines – MTA said subway ridership has plunged 93%, ridership on the Long Island Railroad has plummeted 97%, while ridership on Metro-North Railroad (which connects New York City to Westchester County and Connecticut) has tumbled 95%.

MTA officials estimate that the agency is losing about $125 million per week due to these dramatic reductions in ridership.

Agency chairman Pat Foye said on Friday that about 1,900 MTA workers have tested positive for coronavirus, while another 5,200 are in quarantine. Foye himself has tested positive for coronavirus.

The virus-related death rate for MTA workers is three times the combined rate reported in New York City’s police and fire departments.

“We mourn every one of those [deaths] and mourn with the families of every one of our colleagues,” Foye said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo praised MTA workers. "The transit workers have a very high rate of illness and are, by the way, doing such heroic work," he said.

One of those fatalities was Thomas 'Biju' David, 47, who lived with his wife and three children in East Meadow on Long Island. An immigrant from Kerala in southern India, David grew up in Queens, N.Y. He joined the MTA in 1997, eventually rising to become supervisor of the Labor Relations Department.

Another death was that of Patrick Patoir, 57, who worked at MTA for 33 years.

“What we understand is that he did contract [the virus] at work. He drove to work," said Patoir’s daughter Nache.

Last Thursday, the MTA said it will take the temperatures of employees when they arrive for work. Anyone with a body temperature exceeding 100.4 degrees will be sent home.

“We believe this is an important program in terms of giving assurance to our employees,” Foye said. “We don’t want anybody working who’s sick, and we believe it’s also helped in returning some of our colleagues to work. It gives them additional assurance.”

Foye added that since early March, the MTA has distributed more than 2.5 million pairs of gloves, 500,000 masks and about 160,000 surgical masks to its workforce.

Foye praised MTA workers as first responders. “They’re acting heroically,” he said. “They are essential workers getting doctors and nurses, and utility workers and people in supermarkets and pharmacies, etc., to work. And they’re doing extraordinary work at a very challenging time.”

But some MTA workers said the agency has not done enough to protect them from the virus, while deaths and infections mount.

“This is a byproduct of having been underprepared for what was eventually going to come down the pike," said an MTA worker named Hernandez. “No one should have to die doing their job. I love doing what I do for my city. I love my co-workers… However, I’m not willing to sacrifice the health of my wife and my family.”

Another MTA worker, Robert Martinez, a bus operator in Brooklyn, said masks and gloves either had not been sent or arrived only recently.

"They mishandled this," Martinez said. “The MTA didn’t fulfill their part of the policy and the [transit workers] union is as equally culpable because they didn’t hold the MTA accountable. At my garage, I personally lost a good friend… Maybe had they given [masks and gloves] out from the beginning, him and others would probably still be alive."

John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, also criticized the MTA, but defended his union.

"Certainly, the MTA should have reacted sooner than they reacted. And our response to that was to give out our own masks, 50,000 of them. We're the only union, and the first union in the country, to give out respiratory masks to our members in New York City," he said.

Train conductor Tramell Thompson, who is currently under quarantine, also criticized the agency.

“The number of employees who passed away… is reflective of the action that the MTA took in the beginning of this pandemic," he said. “They dropped the ball… And there’s going to be more people to die, unfortunately, because they took so long to get us the protection that we needed.”

Some family members of deceased MTA workers, like the aforementioned Patoir family, want their deaths recorded as “line-of-duty” fatalities.

"I think that it is very important for [my father’s death] to be recognized as an on-the-job death," Nache Patoir said.

On that basis, the MTA would be required to pay $500,000 to each family -- ten times the amount paid out for a death from natural causes.

Republican City Councilman Joe Borelli from Staten Island supports paying out benefits to families of MTA workers, and other public employees, who perished on the job.

“They have to face the danger. They don't have a choice not to," Borelli said. "They must still come and make sure the trains are running, make sure the police calls are getting responded to, make sure people on Rikers Island [prison] are still being held in custody.”

Patoir’s daughter Nache said of her father: “He understood, even before right now, before this time, before the pandemic hit, that he was an essential worker… We don’t even know what we’re going to do for health insurance. We don’t know how we are going to pay the mortgage.”

Transit union bosses also want these families to have some security.

“There must be a presumption that they were exposed in the system, working this system," said union president Samuelsen. "They come to work every single day doing yeoman’s work, doing heavy lifting for society.”

However, the MTA itself said that the presumption that workers died as a result of exposure on the job must be established by the federal government, who would also bear the high costs of line-of-duty death benefits.

Samuelsen believes the MTA should pay now and get reimbursed by the feds later.

“That's a horrific statement for [MTA] to make," Samuelsen said. "They should step up, honor their workforce, assert positively these are heroic line-of-duty deaths.”