Transit operators have been vital to San Francisco’s survival during the pandemic.
Drivers from Muni, BART and other Bay Area transportation networks have carried seniors to healthcare appointments, low income families to food banks, and essential workers to workplaces that provide vital services such as grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants.
They’ve also been there to provide support to unhoused residents, individuals with limited mobility and other vulnerable populations typically less able to use alternative transportation options.
Yet they’re no longer prioritized alongside other essential workers in the state’s latest COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week, which shifts from a sector-based system to an age-based system.
Under the new plan, once individuals over 65 and healthcare workers receive the vaccine, employees in emergency services, food, agriculture and education sectors will be up next to receive their shots. And then after that, distribution will be based on age.
Previously, the state planned to use a tiered system that prioritized individuals largely based on exposure risk, often tied to the workplace, and transit operators were included in the sectors that would receive the vaccine after individuals over 65 and healthcare workers.
“We are disgusted that, once again, we are thrown under the bus,” said Roger Marenco, the president of TWU Local 250A, the union that represents many Muni operators. “After having kept this city moving throughout the pandemic, the reward that we are given is to be taken from the front of the line and placed at the end of the line.”
While many other workers have the freedom to work-from-home, transit operators must necessarily be on the frontlines of this pandemic, and the case numbers prove their vulnerability to contracting the virus.
As of Jan. 19, over 200 employees at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency had tested positive for COVID-19, approximately 3.4 percent of the staff. SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said “almost, but not quite, zero” of those cases could be tied to the workplace based on contact tracing protocols instituted by The City.
As for BART, 132 employees had tested positive as of Jan. 20, and there had been four workplace clusters in break rooms for train operators and station employees.
Union representatives for Muni and BART employees agree the exposure risk for transit operators continues to be a real concern to members, and they expressed worry that even if all contact tracing protocols and mitigation measures are taken seriously, positive tests are highly likely.
“The contact tracing protocols are being followed. However, due to the nature of the job, it is almost inevitable that more and more positive cases will emerge on a daily basis,” Marenco said.
Cities are required to follow the state directives pertaining to vaccine distribution.
San Francisco had received 144,000 doses of the vaccine as of Jan. 28, according to the COVID-19 Joint Command Center, which does not even begin to meet the 400,000 doses needed to fully vaccinate The City’s residents that are over 65-years-old or work in healthcare.
“San Francisco and healthcare providers are eager and ready to vaccinate more people, but vaccines remain limited. As we receive more vaccines and move forward through the phases, our goal is to distribute the vaccine as quickly as possible.”
Local and state transportation leaders have rallied to call on the governor to make transportation industry workers a priority, either by restoring the original sector-based distribution plan or including them in the early eligibility for those who work in industries such as education, food and agriculture.
In a letter to the governor, the California Transit Association, which represents 85 transit and rail agencies statewide including the major Bay Area operators, makes the case that transit operators should be considered frontline workers and are critical partners with the industries that are elevated under the new plan.
“Moreover, these roles highlight the reality that, in communities across the state, transit agencies are providing services that undeniably align with the services provided by the few sectors that would still benefit from the limited sector-based distribution under the new plan,” the letter said.
Michael Pimentel, executive director of the CTA, told the Examiner that vaccinated transit workers are key to the recovery of cities across California as well as an equitable vaccine rollout to the same populations that continue to ride public transportation throughout this pandemic, many of whom are low income and persons of color.
“In order to actually actuate that plan, we’ve got to step back and think what are the ways that these individuals are going to be able to access healthcare facilities, pop-up sites, and all the things that are envisioned in the state’s plan,” Pimentel said. “In many cases, that’s going to be transit.”
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and Pimentel said CTA had yet to receive a response from the governor. However, he did say his organization was working with state legislators to put pressure on the administration to consider higher vaccine priority for transit operators.