BART: Infections Everywhere, Safety Nowhere

Bay Area Rapid Transit facing the consequences of the latest COVID surge. (Image Credit: San Fransisco Chronicle)

The Omicron surge has caused COVID infections to skyrocket at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. Infections are at all-time highs, but management is doing much less than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Their attitude is that with 97% of workers currently vaccinated, risk to workers’ health and safety is low. So low, in fact, that no measures have to be taken to keep workers safe. There are no requirements for ever getting tested if you are vaccinated, even if contact tracing identified you as a close contact of an infected individual.

BART has a text alert system for positive cases that workers can sign up for, but it is always sent five days after a case is reported. This makes the texts useless for alerting people in a timely manner to prevent further transmission. The texts do reveal that there are outbreaks all over the District. Nearly all of BART’s five maintenance shops have had outbreaks in the last two weeks. Outbreaks are defined as three or more positive cases, at one location, on one shift, within a 14 day period.

On top of no testing, there are no other safety precautions taken in the case of such an outbreak; no shutdown of operations, no effort to separate shifts, no HEPA filters provided for break or locker rooms, and no guarantees for personal protective equipment such as N95 or KN95 masks. Recently there have been more than 11 infections reported daily, with at least 115 total at the moment.

On any given day in the last week there were between eight and twelve stations entirely without a station agent. Entire trains scheduled for service have had to be dropped due to a shortage of train operators. Workers in the shops have had no trains to work on due to the absence of anyone available to bring a train car in from the storage tracks to be worked on in the shop. When management and the Board of Directors imposed a vaccination mandate by Dec. 13, disciplining and even in some cases terminating more than 100 workers, they worsened the already bad understaffing.

To make matters worse, in the stations it is difficult to enforce mask-wearing among the BART riders, some of whom are resistant to the rules. Riders are seen without masks daily, coughing, and not social distancing when addressing workers. Some station agents requested N95 or KN95 masks more than a week ago and still have not received any.

While infections among workers are rampant, there is no COVID leave anymore. Workers who have family members who test positive and who want to keep coworkers safe by not coming into work until they test negative are forced to burn up their own hard-earned sick time. Workers who played their part in following social distancing, masking up, getting vaccinated, and keeping coworkers safe are being punished by having to pay for time away from work. And what about those who do not have any vacation or sick time left? They are forced to come to work, knowingly endangering coworkers.

Supposedly, union officials are in discussions with management to get COVID relief time back, but how long will that take? This virus isn’t waiting and neither should we. It is clear that those in power do not care about workers’ health and safety. Our only option is to organize and demand real safety measures.