Ackemann: VTA bus operators afraid customers are driving COVID-19 spike
A woman boards a VTA bus near Diridon Station in downtown San Jose. File photo.

Driving a bus isn’t easy and the public would do well to remember that as it considers the concerns VTA’s bus operators are raising about what the organization is doing to protect them during the pandemic.

Bus Operators are responsible for safely operating their vehicle, for the safety of pedestrians and other drivers with whom they share the roads and for the safety of their passengers while onboard.  The job doesn’t end there. They collect fares. They communicate with dispatchers about obstructions and passenger issues. They do light janitorial work and act as customer service too, giving directions and answering questions about timetables and fares.

If you’ve worked in customer service, you’re probably aware that the customer is not, in fact, always right. Some want to avoid paying fares or they want to argue about it. Some want to harangue the operator when they are late due to conditions beyond their control.

And since March 2020, some want to argue about wearing a mask.

VTA’s union leadership wants the agency to make some additional accommodations to help protect drivers while mitigating some of the issues that can lead to heated arguments with customers. And most reasonable people can agree that, we need to take all reasonable steps to protect people who work in the public during a pandemic.

In the public transportation industry, agencies often tell operators to make a reasonable effort to collect the fare. But if the situation becomes unsafe, police or security are called in to mediate.

But what happens when personal safety is the reason for the conflict?

Since the start of the pandemic, 164 VTA employees have contracted Covid-19. Not all of those infections were work-related. Based on VTA’s best data, most of those infections did not occur at work. But inexact information offers a murky picture for what might be behind the recent spike in infections.

According to VTA’s most recent statistics, most employees tell them they don’t know where they contracted the virus. For those who can shed more light, most report a family member or friend is the likely source of their infection, with just a small fraction of the total number of infections reportedly taking place at work.

This is consistent with data collected across transportation providers nationwide. According to a story that appeared in the New York Times on Aug. 2, 2020, a study conducted by Parisian public health authorities found that none of the 386 infection clusters they tracked between May and July could be connected to public transportation. Public health officials in Japan and Austria had similar findings – public transportation didn’t appear to be a major source of transmission. This should be good news for transit workers.

Union leaders such as John Courtney say, however, that 95% of the positive COVID-19 cases are VTA employees or operators, and most report contracting the virus at work.

But as infections among front line employees at VTA have risen, tensions between union leadership and management seem to be growing. Union leaders asked for a return to rear-door boarding – a practice the agency adopted early in the pandemic to reduce interactions between customers and operators. VTA reinstated front-door boarding so that it could collect fares when the infection rates were lower last spring and summer.

The agency agreed to temporarily return to the rear-door boarding practice while it studies the recent spike in operator infections.

The rates are likely to drop. Whether they will go down because VTA changed this practice or not will still be tough to say. The fact of the matter is, VTA operators can’t definitively say that front door boarding is the cause of the increase. Most reported infections at the agency come from “unknown” sources, this means the recent increase in infections could be a reflection of a regionwide increase in virus transmission.  Infection rates were already dropping across the region before VTA implemented a return to rear door boarding. It will be difficult to determine whether a subsequent decline in transmission among bus operators is due to an operational change or regional reductions in reported infections.

VTA reports it is still operating at about 25% of its pre-pandemic ridership. This means operators have far fewer passengers onboard those buses – and those still choosing to ride are likely to be those who most need the service. The goal should be to do everything possible to keep operators and passengers safe, while making the service as widely available as is possible.

It’s heartening to see the agency’s leadership responding to operator concerns. Returning to rear-door boarding is the right thing to do as the pandemic rages.

The union also should work in partnership with the agency to encourage employees to be as forthcoming as possible about the sources of their infections because that’s in the best interest of the agency, its employees, and the general public. No employee should feel targeted for fully reporting the details of their infection to help minimize the risk of workplace spread. Neither should unwarranted fears of retaliation be a reason for failing to fully participate in the public health reporting process.

Union leadership shouldn’t seek to vilify customers any more than they want their employees to be scapegoated by management. Most customers are just trying get around on a system that is already operating on a reduced schedule, which makes it tough for those in our community who are transit dependent to do much of anything. There’s isn’t much data to suggest that public transport users are a major source of infection among employees or fellow passengers.

Coronavirus is a problem that requires us to put divisions aside and work together. We’ve seen where division gets us – more infections.

San José Spotlight columnist Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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