By Dan Yablonsky
Essential workers rely on public transit to staff their jobs at grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies, and more. Public transit workers are working tirelessly, and sometimes paying with their lives, to keep our cities moving forward.
Although Covid-19 has decimated our public transit system and endangered the lives of transit riders and workers across Pittsburgh and the country, public transit has never been more important. On April 16th, Pittsburghers for Public Transit hosted a virtual press conference to call for measures to protect and support these essential transit workers and riders.
Steve Palonis, President and Business Agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, representing over 2500 Port Authority workers, outlined the ways his union has fought for worker protections; winning Personal Protective Equipment for workers, testing, and policies that allow workers to recover at home without losing personal vacation time.
PA House Rep Jake Wheatley explained how his proposed House Bill 2380 “Emergency Relief for COVID-19 Workers Act” would ensure that all frontline workers, including transit workers, would be compensated for the risk that they take for themselves and their families by reporting to work every day. PPT also called on state and federal elected officials to support this measure and PA Senator Bob Casey’s proposed Heroes Fund legislation in Washington DC. Passing hazard pay legislation would help avoid devastating transit labor shortages that have caused transit systems to drastically reduce transit services during this crisis.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit also highlighted organizing wins like fareless transit, rear door boarding, and ramping up cleaning efforts. However, because some bus routes continue to have high ridership, PPT urged the Port Authority to increase service frequency on select routes to allow for proper social distancing.
PPT collected more than 70 survey responses from riders who are continuing to take transit, many of whom are working in essential industries like healthcare and supermarkets. These busy routes pass through predominantly black and brown communities, and these communities are also more at risk with COVID-19. Now that there are strict limitations in place on transit carrying capacity, it is important that we are not exchanging crowding on buses for crowding at bus stops. One grocery store worker who responded to PPT’s Covid-19 transit rider survey, who asked to remain anonymous in solidarity with other essential workers, said:
“Public transit is essential for getting me to my shift at a Pittsburgh grocery store. But as a response to Covid-19, our transit agency cut back on the number of buses that run routes. That means it’s harder for me to get to work, and that the buses are more crowded. Believe me; it’s stressful to get onto a packed bus after spending so much effort distancing the rest of the day. As someone who’s also being called an “essential worker,” I can relate to transit drivers in this time. We’re risking our lives, but we’re workers – not martyrs. It’s critical that our employers and public transit agencies give us the compensation and protection we deserve.”
With the current mandate that all riders wear masks, PPT has begun raising funds to provide these masks to 1100 riders. PPT Executive Director Laura Chu Wiens participated in a panel discussion on April 29th, hosted by Carlow University’s Social Justice Institute, to talk about how COVID-19 has exacerbated existing hardships in our most vulnerable communities, and also highlighted the fact that the crisis has proven that we are actually capable of making sweeping changes to our existing systems to better serve these communities – changes like providing free transfers to all riders or even abandoning the fare structure altogether.
Pittsburghers for Public Transit will continue to mobilize with riders and workers to push for protections to get us past this crisis, as well as expanded resources to build back our transit system better than before. Read more about PPT’s press conference, campaigns, how you can contribute, and join them in the struggle at PittsburghForPublicTransit.org.
Dan Yablonsky is the Director of Communications & Development at Pittsburghers for Public Transit – a project of the Thomas Merton Center.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.