Detroit bus drivers and riders exposed to COVID-19

“He had the gloves; he had the mask. He did the hand sanitizer, the handwashing. He did it all. The only thing me and him did not do, and the rest of my co-workers are not doing, is we are not able to stay in the house.” This was part of the emotional post written by Detroit bus driver Eric Colts about his brother-in-law Jason Hargrove, also a city bus driver, who died of COVID-19 on April 1. “I am a transit operator; I am putting my life on the line!”

The death of Jason Hargrove made headlines around the world. Two weeks before his death, Hargrove posted a video to Facebook, venting his frustration about being exposed to sick passengers on his bus. Voicing the feelings of many workers who are forced to risk their lives to keep society functioning and put food on the table, the video has been viewed over 800,000 times. “I kept my mouth closed, but it’s at some point in time we’ve got to draw the line and say enough is enough.”

Infections and deaths are rising to alarming levels among transit workers, along with healthcare, food supply, delivery and other workers deemed essential. In fact, workers in essential industries constitute 36 percent or 2.8 million transit commuters, according to a study by transitcenter.org. As a result, both transit workers and passengers are at high risk, as the bus and subway systems have become a major vector for disease transmission.

Although Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has imposed a state-at-home order through mid-May, restaurant, grocery store, Amazon, nursing home and other essential workers must show up for work or lose their income.

Detroit is one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 disease, with 8,613 cases and 922 deaths as of this writing. The tri-county metropolitan area has more than half the 37,778 cases and 3,315 deaths in the state. The high number of deaths is directly tied to diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other ill health associated with high levels of poverty. After decades of plant closures and mass layoffs, Detroit—which had the highest per capita income of any US city in 1960—has been poorest big city in America for decades.

For at least 25 percent of the residents of the “Motor City,” the bus is their only transportation option because they cannot afford a car. The cost of car ownership in Detroit is the highest for any city in the country. The average cost of car insurance is $5,414 per year, over 20 percent of the typical household income of $26,300.

Since 77 percent of jobs are located at least 10 miles outside of the city center, Detroit has one of the longest average commutes in the US. Three out of five Detroiters must leave the city to work mostly low-paying jobs. Census data showed that 42 percent of Detroiters who work outside the city earn $15,000 or less, 80 percent earn less than $40,000.

“They could stop the buses to stop the spread of the virus, but there are so many that depend on them because they can’t work close to home and they don’t have a car,” Tonya, a Detroit autoworker told the WSWS.

Tonya added, “Workers have no choice but to work. Some creditors may let you pay later but the bills are still due. They are putting workers who ride the buses and the bus drivers in a bad position. The employers are playing on economic desperation to force people to come to work. It’s all about profits. If one person dies, they figure, there are five to replace you.”

Even before the pandemic, bus drivers had one of the highest rates of illnesses and injuries of all occupations according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of transit workers over 65 is double that of the general working population. This and other occupational hazards such as exposure to diesel fumes and pollution make them uniquely susceptible to the disease.

After being exposed for weeks with little help from the government, transit workers took job actions in mid-March to demand protection. Two days before Jason posted his video, Detroit bus drivers staged a sickout independently of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), stopping service early in the morning on Tuesday, March 17. A driver told the Local 4 news, “(The CDC) already said not more than 10 people in a setting. I carry 75 people at a time, on a bus standing up around me. No hand sanitizer, no gloves from the department.”

Instead of a concrete plan to protect these essential workers, countermeasures such as plexiglass barriers, gloves, masks, rear door entries and exits and distancing passengers from drivers have been implemented in an ad-hoc manner. Detroit bus drivers have reported not getting the masks they were promised after their job action.

It also is not clear these measures really protect workers who spend their day in what Eric Colts called, “a 40-foot-long coronavirus incubator.” Other measures have backfired. Reductions in the number of buses only caused dangerous overcrowding in the buses that remain in service as workers have no other option for going to work or buying food.

Detroit bus drivers and other city workers have faced decades of budget cuts and eroding wages and working conditions. These have been imposed by successive Democratic Party administrations with the full backing of the ATU, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and other city unions.

Under terms of the 2012 Consent Agreement that preceded the state-imposed Emergency Manager and the subsequent bankruptcy of Detroit in 2014, then Detroit Mayor Dave Bing slashed the pay of city workers, including bus drivers, by 10 percent. In a deal signed by the ATU in 2015, the pay cuts were not restored, with veteran drivers maxing out at just $17.23 an hour.

Due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, Democratic Party Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said the city may have to be put under the control of a financial manager again or go back into bankruptcy. While transit workers and city residents continue to risk their lives, and nurses and health care workers protest over the lack of sufficient staff levels and protective equipment, Wall Street is once again warming its hands over the possibility of looting public employee pensions and other public assets to further enrich wealthy bondholders.