‘Our workers are scared to death’: Metro union calls for more cuts during coronavirus crisis

As Metro aims to run trains every 20 minutes or so this week on each line, with buses mainly on a Sunday schedule, workers continue to fear they could be exposed to COVID-19.

Buses will become free Tuesday, so riders can board using the back door to stay away from bus operators. Several other local bus systems have made similar changes.

Trains will run every 15 minutes on the Red Line and every 20 minutes on other lines that overlap downtown.

“The next anticipated service change is expected to be the strategic closure of selected Metrorail stations and entrances to save critical cleaning supplies. Each station entrance is equipped with at least one escalator (most with multiple escalators), and unless closed, require cleaning in accordance with Metro’s pandemic response standards,” Metro said in a release.

Metro plans to cut back weekend bus service dramatically again next weekend, after a last-minute shift late Saturday eliminated dozens of lines across the region that typically run on the weekend, leaving service only every 30 minutes and only on 20 key corridors.

Metro’s largest union is joining the transit agency to plead with people to stay home unless it is absolutely necessary.

“We have always been there for the public, we need the public to be there for us,” ATU Local 689 President Raymond Jackson told WTOP. “If you’re just going out to be out, please don’t do it, because you’re putting our operators in jeopardy.”

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Rail ridership has already fallen dramatically. Bus ridership has fallen less, since more people who use the bus need it to get around.

“Our workers are scared to death, but they’re coming in every day,” Jackson said. “We need WMATA to cut more of the service back.”

Further Metro service cuts are possible as the situation with worker availability, directives from state and local governments, and ridership levels change, Metro said.

“Metro wants to provide bus service for essential trips in the region, but if continued usage for nonessential trips becomes a public health concern, Metro may consider discontinuing all bus service,” Metro said.

Rail service hours have been cut back so that the system closes at 11 p.m. Smithsonian and Arlington Cemetery stations are also closed.

Jackson generally praised how Metro has handled the coronavirus crisis so far, but is worried continuing service would put drivers and other workers at risk, while also increasing the odds of the virus spreading among passengers packed into the few buses that are running.

“I know that people have got to get to work, but those are not the people we’re carrying,” Jackson said. “Our buses are standing room only. If you’re only going for essential personnel, there’s no way the buses should be crowded.”

Jackson believes an extremely limited set of bus lines, similar to the routes that ran Sunday, would be the best path forward, as long as routes serving places like G.W. Hospital, Georgetown Hospital and other crucial medical facilities continue running.

“If we run more buses, all that’s going to do is attract more people. You’ve got to keep this social distance,” Jackson said. “If you build it they will come.”

“How are we ever going to get this situation under control if you’ve still got 100,000 people riding the buses on a daily basis?” Jackson asked.

Metrobus operators have already been on an A/B schedule, including at the privately operated Cinder Bed Road bus garage in Lorton, Virginia, with specific operators assigned to work one day and the other group of operators assigned to work the following day in order to keep people available if one group were to be exposed to the virus.

“The authority is working with us, but I would like to see them scale it back a little more,” Jackson said.

He said Metro has been “great” working with the union’s concerns, including adopting his suggestion to have riders board through the back door of buses with no fare collection starting this week.

“They are working with us, and we are working with them. That’s a start. I would like to see more service cuts, only essential lines,” Jackson said.

The problem is many people are not limiting themselves to only essential trips.

“Some people are selfish,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that the public is getting this. They don’t get it or they just don’t care.”

Metro station managers have not been on the alternating schedule, but were told to remain in their kiosks as much as possible.

Still, when a person approached a station manager at Metro Center last week, claiming to have the virus, it triggered a several hour shutdown of the station for cleaning as a precaution.

Workers are still going in if they are healthy, Jackson said. However, but he sees a situation where the fear becomes paralyzing.

“Once one of our workers gets critically ill or should pass away, that’s going to be it,” Jackson said.

On the rails, Jackson would ideally like to see the first car of each train closed off completely to riders, even though train operators are separated in the operating cab.

“Some of our members are going to get sick from this virus, whether they pick this up here on the bus or they catch it at home. … But my thing is to try to limit their access to it, to touching it, at least when they’re at work,” he said.

At least three Metro employees have tested positive — a Metro Transit Police Officer, a bus operator at the Bladensburg garage, and a storeroom employee.

The bus operator was feeling a bit better on Sunday, Jackson said, but was still dealing with general aches.

Like many people across the region, several Local 689 employees have been concerned they could have the virus, but remained home to recover from milder symptoms, Jackson said.

“We need to get the message out to the riding public they’ve got to stay home, unless you really need to get out to go somewhere to work, to the grocery store and back, to the pharmacy and back, you should be in the house,” Jackson said.

Bus operators are allowed to use their own gloves and masks, but it is unclear if those would provide significant protection.

“This is the time to get these people from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible and as safe as possible,” Jackson said.

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