Jeff Richardson will tell you that his members – the more than 1,100 members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1342 – are scared.
They operate Metro buses and trains, clean them at night and repair them when needed. As the union's local president, Richardson says his members find themselves dealing directly with all kinds of people at a time when the rest of the world shelters at home from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Operators can't help but wonder, he says, about every rider who climbs aboard one of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's 268 buses. Do they carry the contagious virus? Can they spread the deadly disease to those on the front lines?
"We've got people coughing and sneezing all over the place, one guy spitting on the floor," Richardson said.
"They're all doing pretty well," he said of his union employees. "But they're scared."
It may have all hit home this week for the more than 56,000 viewers of a Facebook photo posted by Bee Jones, whom Richardson confirmed is a Metro operator. In the photo, Jones is surrounded by hospital breathing equipment, and says he is battling Covid-19 in the intensive care unit of an unidentified hospital.
"Been sick for almost 2 weeks and almost died. Its been a truly humbling experience and i don't think my perspective on life will ever be the same," he says in the post. "To all my NFTA metro friends yes i have Covid 19 and i got it driving those contaminated buses. You should be concerned about going to work everyday.
"I wore gloves and a mask and still caught it," he adds. "Those mask and gloves wont save you from that NFTA bus exposure and what good is a paycheck if you arent alive to spend it?"
Im currently in ICU fighting Covid 19. Been sick for almost 2 weeks and almost died. Its been a truly humbling...
NFTA spokeswoman Helen Tederous said Friday that Jones is an authority employee who last worked on March 27, but could not confirm that he has tested positive for Covid-19. But Richardson said Friday that Jones told him he is hospitalized with the disease.
"It has been our practice to publicly announce when an NFTA employee tests positive once and only when it has been confirmed," she said. "The NFTA had five employees test positive for Covid-19, all are recovering.
Transit operators like Jones are among those being hailed this week for continuing with the nation's essential work. The NFTA maintains a full schedule to ferry medical workers and others to hospital jobs, even while it discourages everyone from riding its buses and trains unless necessary.
"NFTA-Metro has taken significant steps to ensure the safety of our operators and riders, by imposing the practice of having customers board using the rear door and restricting access near the front of the bus, and increasing the disinfecting of our buses daily," Tederous said. "We are immensely proud of all of our drivers who are taking essential workers to their vital jobs during this healthcare crisis, and we want to remind the public that only essential traveling should be taking place at this time."
Still, local transit employees need only look across the state to New York City, where 41 Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees have died and more than 6,000 are sick or self-quarantined while also continuing to operate buses and trains.
"There's a real fear among the drivers," said Ron Giza, Local 1342's financial secretary. "Some of this stuff we can't get away from. They don't feel safe."
Union officials stress that the NFTA has proven more than cooperative in protecting its employees. The authority eliminated fares to lessen interaction between operators and riders. It requires riders to enter and exit from the rear door to maintain a safe distance, and has taken the counter-intuitive step of discouraging anyone but essential workers – police, fire, medical personnel – from riding.
The NFTA has even granted its workers a "recharge day" for them to relax away from coronavirus concerns.
Giza also credits the authority for its efforts and points to shipments of thousands of units of gloves, masks, protective clothing and sanitizers issued to union employees. Management has maintained an "open door" policy and constant efforts aim toward making Metro buses and trains safe for operators and riders alike, he said.
But concerns remain. Giza said many buses are near empty much of the time, but can sometimes fill up with 20 or more passengers. That makes social distancing difficult, he said. In addition, passengers are often homeless, mentally ill or drug users.
"Some of these people have nowhere to go when it's snowing or raining," Giza said, adding their presence only adds to operators' concerns.
Giza and Richardson say operators and riders alike could benefit from "tweaking" the current rules. They seek more distance between bus operators and passengers – extended to beyond the wheelchair area. And the buses sometimes get too crowded for comfort even as the NFTA discourages ridership.
"We have too many people riding every day who are not police or firemen," Richardson said. "We have on individual who is 90-years-old and just rides back and forth, back and forth."
Giza said the authority should explore issuing passes to essential workers only, or limiting riders to around 10 per bus.
"If you're talking about saving peoples' lives, there should never be 20 people on bus," he said. "We could do better."