Safety concerns for frontline workers over COVID-19 went unheeded by MiWay, transit union says
MiWay’s union believes the transit agency and the City of Mississauga should have been far more proactive in taking safety measures to protect the health of frontline workers in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
This week, MiWay, and other GTA transit agencies introduced mandatory rear-door boarding on all transit vehicles, which will limit the amount of contact drivers have with a potentially infected transit rider.
MiWay also stopped charging fares and chopped bus service by 30 percent as of this week. After threatening to discipline transit workers for wearing surgical masks, even sending a bus driver home without pay in early March for wearing one, the transit agency, according to its union, now won’t intervene if drivers supply their own equipment.
That’s a relief for the frontline workers, but Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU 1572), which represents MiWay staff, is disappointed it took some two weeks for the transit agency to bring in tougher safety guidelines after the first case of novel coronavirus in Mississauga was announced earlier his month. Since then, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Peel Region has jumped to 43 as of Monday morning, with 19 of those cases being linked to Mississauga, according to Peel Public Health.
Even with the new measures, frustrations over safety continue to linger among the rank-and-file, says ATU 1572 president Jack Jackson.
Concerns that are only amplified due to the current shortages of personal protective equipment, like surgical masks and latex gloves, which could have been stockpiled weeks ago, as the union had advised, before the pandemic worsened.
“The truth is, had [MiWay] sat down and taken suggestions from [the union] and possibly been more proactive, we would have had these resources on hand when the time came and we actually needed them,” Jackson told The Pointer on Monday.
While there isn’t any conclusive evidence to suggest such equipment completely prevents infection of COVID-19, bus operators have called on MiWay to provide them, and the union has sought to procure enough gloves and masks for workers, but has been unsuccessful in finding a large enough supply.
Jackson feels MiWay’s shortsightedness for securing gloves and masks only emphasizes the lack of consideration for transit employees as essential frontline workers, whose labour, like healthcare professionals and first responders, is just as required to keep society going.
“What I don’t think is being talked about [enough], is transit workers who are out there without masks making sure the city moves,” said Jackson. “We stay out there and make sure the buses move.”
City of Mississauga spokesperson Catherine Monast declined to address the union’s criticism of MiWay’s COVID-19 preparedness, on the grounds the city doesn’t comment on “labour relations matters through the media."
Back on March 4, MiWay Director Geoff Marinoff told Mississauga City Council the agency would begin implementing “enhanced cleaning practices” on its buses already employed by other transit providers as soon as possible.
Marinoff said MiWay was waiting for guidance from healthcare authorities. He also pointed out Metrolinx had opted on its own to spray all GO Transit vehicles with a powerful disinfectant known to kill coronavirus strains after a COVID-19 case was traced back to one of its vehicles.
“They’ve decided on their own initiative to enhance their own cleaning standards,” said Marinoff under questioning by Ward 2 Councillor Karen Ras. He admitted more needed to be understood by the transit agency before the same disinfectant could be applied to MiWay buses.
“That will take some time to work through [all the issues for applying the disinfectant],” Marinoff told Ras, adding that the new measures would be implemented “as soon as it is practical."
Spraying of MiWay buses began the next day, March 5. On March 6, City of Mississauga officials confirmed the first local case of COVID-19, a Toronto man who commuted to his Mississauga workplace by transit, who had also boarded MiWay buses on multiple occasions from March 2-4, at the time he became ill.
“The City of Mississauga was already in the process of rolling out enhanced cleaning measures on our transit fleet at the time the news was shared with us that a possible exposure occurred,” said Mayor Bonnie Crombie in a statement issued March 6 announcing the diagnosis.
“We are taking all the steps necessary to ensure the safety of both the public and our staff. It’s important to remember that the risk to the public of the spread of the virus remains low. Public transit remains safe and I encourage people to continue to use MiWay for their commute and daily travels.”
According to Monast, MiWay has a health and safety protocol in place to assess workplace hazards and risks, and union members are part of the transit agency’s Joint Health and Safety Committee.
“As a consequence of the appointment of Union Executive members to these roles, the Union Executive is a full participant in our Internal Responsibility System [IRS],” said Monast in an email.
Leo Covello, ATU’s health and safety representative, who sits on the joint committee, said concerns about greater protections for frontline MiWay staff were first raised at a meeting, weeks before community spread of the virus, indicating a more rapid infection rate, was detected by Peel Public Health.
At the early February meeting, Covello claims his concerns about the virus spreading via public transit from riders to drivers, were disregarded. Management even turned down a request to distribute hand sanitizer, said Covello, until union leadership intervened.
“[Management] was saying to wait and see, that was pretty much their whole message,” said Covello, who is a union vice-president and a full-time MiWay bus driver.
While on the job, Covello says he’s previously seen riders boarding his bus and coughing as they pay their fare right next to the driver’s compartment. He claims one rider even claimed to have contracted COVID-19 and coughed in his direction.
Despite such incidents Covello says the concerns expressed by drivers about their personal safety fell upon deaf ears.
“Not being allowed to wear gloves or masks from the beginning [of the outbreak], I’ll admit that bothers me a bit,” he said, adding drivers who opt to wear such equipment, that they themselves provide, have not faced discipline recently.
Even the recent improvements to safety introduced by MiWay were only as a result of recommendations made by Covello to the committee following frustration from the frontline workers.
While drivers are happy with the new measures, Covello says he wishes they had been listened to in the first place, perhaps preventing infection from spreading. No MiWay workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and beyond the early March case, no other cases have been linked with Mississauga transit buses or stations.
“There’s a lot of frustration [among workers] that MiWay doesn’t want us at the table with them to try and help solve some of these issues ahead of time,” he said. “They’re shutting us out.”
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