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SEAT drivers petition for hazard pay, face mask enforcement

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The Southeast Area Transit District driver’s union has submitted a petition seeking hazard pay and the ability to enforce mask wearing among passengers.

“Transit workers/bus drivers are essential (front-line) employees that are transporting large groups of possibly contagious people in an enclosed space (Bus) for 8 or more hours per day,” states the petition, which had more than 30 signatures from ATU Local 1209. The nature of transit bus drivers' work "places our lives at risk on a daily basis,” it says.

The drivers also noted in the petition that their passengers include people who are homeless and often cannot afford health care and may be at higher risk for COVID-19.

The petition says that riders should be required to follow the governor’s directive to wear masks and that transit workers should be considered front-line workers.

Jaroslaw Pizunski, ATU Local 1209 president and business agent, said the union is seeking hazard pay to offer an incentive for drivers to come to work. He said the drivers are scared.

Connecticut ATU Locals also held a rally in Hartford earlier this month.

SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said he understands the operators’ concerns. He said SEAT is taking steps to keep drivers safe and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including having passengers board the bus through the rear door, supplying personal protective equipment, or PPE, for drivers and installing clear barriers where the drivers sit, along with other measures for workers, such as relaxing rules for overtime.

He said the bus district is supplying drivers with surgical masks, gloves, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, after some initial challenges in getting PPE. He said the heavier-duty N95 and KN95 masks remain a challenge to find, so the district only had limited distribution of those.

Carroll said most customers have been complying with wearing masks and limiting trips to essential travel.

“I’ve been really appreciative and very grateful for the support our employees have shown throughout this pandemic,” he added. “I know it’s been tough.”

Pizunski said enforcement of mask wearing is the missing piece. While he agreed that most passengers wear masks, there are still people who don’t know they are supposed to wear a mask or who refuse to, and bus drivers should be allowed to enforce mask wearing. He also said some people are taking the bus for fun.

Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said “there are a number of jobs and services in the state that are obviously important to assist the state in contending with, responding to, and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Transit and transit workers would certainly fit that bill.”

The petition cites that the DOT has advised transit workers that no rider can be denied boarding or be required to exit the bus if they are not wearing a mask.

Nursick said numerous steps are in place to make the services as safe as possible for both the public and employees. The governor’s directive mandates masks for those that can wear them, but allows exceptions for those with medical conditions without requiring an explanation. “It would therefore be inappropriate for operators to deny service to those who do not wear one,” he said.

Carroll said SEAT wants to prevent any confrontations in which people would get close to one another.

Meanwhile, starting on Monday, SEAT plans to restore its regular day service Mondays through Saturdays, but there will not be night and Sunday service.

“As the state partially reopens, we want to try to get our service back to as much normalcy as we possibly can to support our customers,” Carroll said.

Ridership last month declined nearly 60%, compared to April 2019, but Carroll said he anticipates it will start ticking back up, particularly as the casinos reopen.

SEAT has been offering “helper buses” in Norwich and New London to pick up passengers when buses get too crowded, but those buses and operators to drive them are not always available, according to the manager’s report. Pizunski said it’s important to ensure those buses are available, particularly as more people head back to work.

k.drelich@theday.com

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