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MBTA, unions looking for more ways to slow the spread of coronavirus

MBTA workers are pressing for additional measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus on the transit system.
MBTA workers are pressing for additional measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus on the transit system.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Eighteen transit workers have tested positive for coronavirus, MBTA officials said Monday, as the agency and its labor unions consider new safety measures to prevent a broader outbreak among the workforce and the riders they encounter.

As with essential employees in other sectors, operators, drivers, and maintenance workers at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority are at risk of contracting the disease simply by working in public. While the transit system has already imposed new health measures, MBTA officials and the Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents bus drivers and train operators, have been negotiating about additional initiatives to curb the virus’s spread.

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The two sides did not have any details to announce late Monday, but MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said additional steps were imminent.

The MBTA announced its first three coronavirus cases on Wednesday, bus operators who all worked out of one South Boston facility. Since then, seven more bus drivers, two rail operators, two inspectors, a subway supervisor, a fare machine technician, a repairer, and a rail yard worker have tested positive, the T said.

In a video message sent to workers last week, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said that “as more tests become available, it is to be expected that more cases will be identified.”

“We offer our best wishes for a full recovery,” he said of the workers who tested positive.

The MBTA, which has reduced service as ridership collapses, has already enacted several policies in a bid to contain the virus. On buses and trolleys, riders are asked to board through back doors, limiting their interaction with drivers. The interiors of vehicles are disinfected overnight and during a midday layover.

Surfaces at stations are also scheduled for regular disinfectant cleaning. Drivers are being provided with protective gear such as eye wear, hand sanitizer, and gloves. And the MBTA recently announced riders would not be paired with other travelers on the Ride, its door-to-door car and van service for riders with disabilities.

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Still, some drivers and maintenance workers are worried about the virus, especially as it begins to spread among the workforce. Some drivers may even be taking matters into their own hands; the Carmen’s Union recently posted a notice on its website urging bus drivers not to create makeshift barriers between riders and drivers using seat belts, calling such activity a “major safety problem” and a “fire hazard."

National trade and labor groups have recommended best practices for transit agencies, including some, like rear-door boarding, that the MBTA has already adopted. But the national Amalgamated Transit Union has also called for further action to “seal off operator workstations" from the public.

Polly Hanson, director of security and emergency management at the American Public Transportation Association, said agencies should also consider ways to minimize contact between workers, such as splitting rosters into multiple “teams” that work alternate days. In an ideal world, drivers would wear masks and have their temperatures checked as their shifts began, Hanson added. But that’s a challenge because of national shortages.

“Good luck getting a mask,” she said.

In internal memos circulated last week, the MBTA directed employees not to go to work and to use sick time if they feel ill, have been told to self-quarantine, are caring for an ill relative, or have tested positive for the disease. Workers who have had “indirect contact” with somebody who has tested positive are still expected to work.

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Workers have been told that if they need added time to stay home, they can borrow from future sick pay accruals.

The Carmen’s Union declined to comment on negotiations with the MBTA. But last week it issued a statement that appeared to take aim at that policy, suggesting that sick time should be expanded during the pandemic — matching another recommendation of national advocacy groups and labor unions.

Meanwhile, the MBTA’s bus maintenance union said it is primarily concerned about gaining access to coveted protective equipment; in particular, maintenance workers are hoping for protective suits as well as more hand sanitizer and dust masks.

“The main challenge, as is the case for many industries, is the lack of personal protective equipment, which is dangerous to begin with when doing this kind labor, let alone in the midst of a pandemic,” said Mike Vartabedian, the union’s business representative. "We feel management is doing its best to rectify some of these issues. The lack of access to protective equipment is not management’s fault but is becoming an increasingly urgent issue.”

Other maintenance workers have expressed concerns about working on vehicles that have not been cleaned when they are brought in for repairs.

In a notice posted in Green Line repair shops last week, a supervisor wrote that he had “not been notified of any plans to have cleaning personnel on hand to clean and disinfect cars coming into the car house,” and that workers may personally want to wipe down parts of trolleys they are working on. The MBTA later clarified that this notice referred to vehicles that are coming in for repairs after in-service breakdowns and were disinfected before being put into service.

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.