Rockford bus drivers are calling on city leaders to dramatically overhaul safety precautions and reinstate hazard pay.
Jodi Williams is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1333. She went to Rockford’s City Hall to call for an overhaul of existing safety precautions for city buses. Williams is asking the City for a return to rear-door boarding and a limit on the number of bus passengers.
She also wants the City to install higher quality air filters and to massively improve the degree of cleaning on the buses.
“There’s a lot of things that can be done," she said, "to keep everyone safer. And that's what we're fighting for.”
Williams said that she started getting worried when RMTD lifted capacity limits.
"When we went back up in numbers, you know, you can't go from 10 to up to 28-32 Passengers. CTA is 15.”
CTA is the Chicago Transit Authority. In April, six Rockford Mass Transit District Employees tested positive for COVID-19. RMTD reduced several routes, implemented a hard limit of 10 passengers per bus, and required face masks for everyone on board.
But even when safety precautions were implemented, Williams felt it was done the cheapest way possible.
“And then one morning, we came in on our buses and all of a sudden the radios were going crazy with the drivers calling dispatch because their dispensers were on the ground because they just used adhesive tape.” Williams continued, ”Well, you got humidity, you got elements, you get the bouncing of buses.”
Williams says the Plexiglas dividers installed between the drivers and passengers are also an issue.
“It literally is at your waist, comes up and then shields off this way. And then back up.” Williams continued, "So it's Plexiglas that reflects, fogs, glares, you name it. So we just, you know, we want safety.”
Williams said it’s not just RMTD bus drivers that feel unsafe. Paratransit drivers have few enhanced safety measures, besides face mask requirements. Lisa Brown is a spokeswoman for RMTD. She confirmed that the shape of the Paratransit bus makes it difficult to install Plexiglas dividers. But they do have a limited capacity of six passengers.
Williams said Paratransit drivers usually have to make direct contact with passengers to help them on and off the bus.
And it’s not just the bus drivers.
“They're using our mechanics to come out and clean buses during the day," she said. "They're taken away from buses being fixed to be out there and to be safe.”
Recently, three drivers and two mechanics tested positive for COVID-19. William Favretto is the vice president of ATU Local 1333. He said that just the other day he heard there was only one person cleaning all the buses.
“We've done everything we can and we want the public to know they're in danger,” said Favretto.
As it stands, Williams says it’s impossible to guarantee that drivers and passengers are safe.
“On our buses, every seat is open," she said. "So social distancing is out the window once you step on a bus impossible.”
What frustrates Williams and Favretto the most is that RMTD has funds to make the changes they want to see. Earlier this year, with the help from the union, RMTD received $9.3 million in emergency funds through the CARES Act. Lisa Brown said $2 million has been spent and that RMTD is holding onto the remaining $7 million in case the RMTD faces any unexpected funding cuts.
Williams said that given the rising positivity rate in Winnebago County, RMTD employees should get additional compensation.
“We want hazard pay. We deserve hazard pay and we were paid hazard paid before, from April 20 to the end of May.” Williams continued, “They stopped paying.”
Favretto said they're going try to secure the hazard pay retroactively. The way he sees it, public transit in Rockford doesn’t run without the bus drivers and they should be paid with that fact in mind.
“So if anybody is essential to this, it ain't the executive director, it ain't [the] manager, hey, they don't come to work, we can still run.” Favretto continued, ”If we don't come to work for whatever reason what that may be -- it definitely does not. Right, it will absolutely not run. So we need to be taken care of.”
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara recently spoke with driver and local president Jodi Williams and asked her to email him what changes the union wants to see. And RMTD has already begun installing new air cleaning units on the buses. Both Williams and Favretto say they only just found out about the new air cleaning units from a recent Rockford Register Star report.
Williams said it all feels very simple: whether you’re turning the wheel or you’re turning the wrench -- an RMTD worker deserves to know that they are safe at work.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.