Miami Herald: Transit union is suing Miami-Dade for more masks and hand sanitizer for bus drivers

The union representing Miami-Dade bus drivers wants a judge to order the county to provide the kind of masks and cleaning supplies needed to keep one of the nation’s largest transit fleets operating safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing rationing so strict that bus drivers are issued only a single disinfectant wipe for an entire shift, the local Transportation Workers Union chapter said in a lawsuit that Miami-Dade’s bus drivers remain too vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19 from passengers still using transit to work and shop.

The suit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on Friday against transit director Alice Bravo claims buses and trains aren’t being sterilized enough, Miami-Dade isn’t enforcing anti-crowding rules on vehicles, and vital masks and hand sanitizer are either severely rationed or unavailable.

The “failure to provide these basic supplies in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the safety of the bus operators and the bus system as a whole,” the suit reads.

The accusations detail complaints union leaders have made from the start of Miami-Dade’s coronavirus crisis, which brought extraordinary measures that upended how transit operates.

The county suspended fares on March 22 to stop contact with payment equipment and allow bus drivers to close entrance doors near them and require passengers to board from the back.

Now half the seats are marked off to create more room between passengers, Uber and Lyft vouchers have replaced overnight routes and wait times are up between buses and trains to cut costs in the face of an 80 percent ridership drop.

In an interview, Bravo said the county continues to ration disinfectant wipes and does not have the medical-grade N95 masks for bus operators that Miami-Dade paramedics and police receive.

But she said transit has lower-grade surgical masks for all drivers, and has been able to obtain enough cleaning materials and expand contract hiring to disinfect buses much more frequently than at the start of the crisis in early March. “Those supplies are coming in,” she said, “and we have vendors at night that help us clean.”

Passengers now must wear face coverings to board transit. The agency also is urging people not to use buses or Metrorail unless they have to for “essential” trips.

The suit asks a judge to order Miami-Dade to provide bus and train operators and other transit workers adequate supplies of N95 masks, wipes, hand sanitizers and gloves.

It also asks for an injunction mandating proper cleaning and sanitizing of transit vehicles. “Surfaces of a bus probably have more human touch in a week than any surface in Dade County,” said union lawyer Mark Richard.

The union, which has a majority of African-American members, also wants the judge to order an investigation of how the county distributes coronavirus inventory to all departments, with a breakdown of the race of the employees that are getting the supplies.

Jeffery Mitchell, the union president, accused Miami-Dade of giving low priority to transit workers during the coronavirus pandemic, despite their being in close contact with the public. For passengers using wheelchairs, a bus driver often has to assist the person inside and then secure the chair, working within inches of the person’s face.

He said Miami-Dade secured enough N95 masks to keep the police and fire departments well supplied, but some transit workers have to use the same flimsy surgical mask for days.

“I’m glad they’re getting them,” he said of county public-safety employees, “but what that reveals is that you’re picking and choosing who you want to give them to. … We’re getting the bottom of the barrel.”

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