Drivers: Transit operators jeopardized

City of Santa Clarita buses on line at the TMF on Constellation Road. Gilbert Bernal / The Signal

By Tim Whyte and Tammy Murga

Santa Clarita Transit drivers are worried — for their health and their jobs.

“It’s scary out there,” said a Santa Clarita Transit operator with more than 10 years of experience, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from MV Transportation Inc., which contracts with the city to provide transit service. “This did not get serious from management, from corporate, until we had a fatality.”

The driver and two others have painted an unflattering picture of MV Transportation over the past two weeks as the company has faced the ramifications of the COVID-19 outbreak. All drivers who have contacted The Signal have asked not to be identified.

Despite multiple attempts to reach officials with MV Transportation for a response, emails and phone calls were not returned late Tuesday and Wednesday. 

On March 31, the company announced three drivers had tested positive for COVID-19, and one had died — just three days after falling ill, and four days after the deceased driver’s most recent shift operating a commuter bus. This week, it was confirmed that two more drivers tested positive.

Since then, some drivers have been asked by MV Transportation to self-quarantine for 14 days, including one operator who said Monday, “I called in sick the day after (receiving two memos about the confirmed COVID-19 cases) because I didn’t feel (MV Transportation) was taking enough measures to protect us.” 

“After we got the second memo, still no masks, no gloves,” the driver said. “They gave us an old bottle of sanitizer but that was it, no precaution.” 

A third operator said their employer “provided the cleaning utility crew with masks, but said if the drivers want masks, it’s up to them.” 

One of the reasons why some or none of the drivers had received respirators was because MV Transportation had been sourcing a limited supply, spokesman Jeff Womack said Monday, adding that the company had placed an order Sunday for about 640,000 masks for workers in all of its divisions across the nation. 

Although bus drivers are MV Transportation employees, Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth said, “The city stepped in to provide masks while MV (Transportation) was putting their plans together.” 

The city provided 500 masks to MV Transportation drivers this week, according to City Communications Manager Carrie Lujan. 

Santa Clarita Transit fleet receives cleaning amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Courtesy of the city of Santa Clarita

One driver said it’s unclear what cleaning procedures have changed since the outbreak hit, although MV Transportation has said deep cleaning procedures have been implemented. “During this whole crisis, has anybody ever seen anyone other than a city employee who Lysol-ed the door handles the first week this happened?” the driver said. “I will say this: When I get on (the bus) it smells super clean, but I still take five minutes and Clorox everything I’m going to be touching.”

The driver was not provided gloves or a face mask until Monday, nearly a week after the death of one of the drivers who tested positive for COVID-19.

“To never be given one until there was a fatality and three drivers tested positive was alarming. They gave me an N-95 mask on Monday with one pair of gloves, and I bring my own hand sanitizer,” the driver said. Bus operators were required to sign a document acknowledging receipt of the mask and gloves, “to cover their ass,” the driver said, adding employees were not given a copy of that document. “Yes, they did give us a mask Monday when we showed up for work, but those masks are only good for one day.”

The next day, no additional masks or gloves were available, the driver said. “What good is one pair of gloves? Zero.”

Transit operators were not told who the driver was who died — nor have the others who tested positive been identified to coworkers — though news spread by word of mouth among the employees, the driver said, adding that most drivers remain uncertain of whether they have been in contact with infected coworkers. Most of the managers and many of the drivers are out on quarantine, the driver said, and those who have not left work to self-isolate remain fearful of losing their jobs if they were to do so.

The driver said those operators who drive the smaller paratransit buses or the larger commuter buses are more vulnerable because those buses have just one door, and fewer windows that can be opened, compared to the two-door, multi-window buses that operate on routes around town. This makes it more difficult to accomplish proper ventilation and 6-foot social distancing, particularly on smaller buses with more than a couple of passengers. “Those are like a perfect nest for this virus because they only have one window that opens.”

“The only way on and off, unless (passengers) are in a wheelchair, is the front door, and they literally walk right past the driver,” the operator said, adding that dealing with passengers in wheelchairs presents additional exposure risk, because the wheelchair has to be secured at all four points. “It’s not like you just roll them on and don’t talk to them or don’t touch them.”

The operator added drivers are being asked to take risks when passengers show up without masks. The city of Los Angeles has ordered everyone to wear masks outside the home, but no such order yet applies in the city of Santa Clarita or unincorporated L.A. County. Since the city doesn’t have its own health department, it follows orders issued by L.A. County Public Health, which so far has only recommended people wear masks.

“We should be able to request that the passengers wear a mask to protect their safety and our safety,” the driver said, adding that more should be done to make passengers aware of the need for masks. “It’s us that are out there putting our lives on the line to help people get where they need to go. There’s so much stress going on right now, it’s crazy.”

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