Jose Molina would never claim to be a hero. But the service he is rendering in these strange and dark times is definitely essential.
Five days a week, his Route 32 bus travels from Hyde Park to Forest Hills. His passengers these days are people who can’t stay at home: health care workers, first responders of various types, people seeking medical treatment.
While many of us have retreated to our homes for the duration, the MBTA is still running. That means that its drivers, mechanics, and other employees are right on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. With limited protective equipment, and few practical means of avoiding contact with the public, they are facing the crisis as best they can.
“It’s been a little bit rough, only because we’re dealing with this coronavirus and everyone’s on the edge,” Molina said last week. “I praise these doctors — these doctors are miracle workers — but no one says anything about the MBTA. I deal with hundreds of passengers a day.”
This crisis has laid bare layers of inequality in our city. But in few arenas does that divide play out as starkly as in public transit, where those who can’t stay home are served by people who also can’t stay home.
In the best of times, Molina’s is a low-visibility, often thankless job. But now — with no choice but to perform a job that carries heavy risk — the normal challenges are multiplied. Even with ridership down to a fraction of its normal level, and the frequency of service adjusted, there’s still plenty of exposure to the public.
“Some trips are heavier than others,” Molina said. “But we all have families to go to, so we’re afraid to bring the virus home.”
MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, said 30 employees have tested positive for coronavirus, including one inspector who died from COVID-19.
MBTA officials — reacting to a crisis they had never considered — have scrambled to keep operators and other employees as safe as possible. The agency has been distributing personal protective equipment as quickly as it can acquire it. On buses, passengers have been boarding through rear doors only, to keep them farther away from drivers. On buses and Green Line cars some seats closest to operators have been declared off-limits, another effort to enforce a greater distance between drivers and passengers.
The virus has also prompted temperature checks for employees at the beginning of their shifts. Those with fevers are sent home and urged to contact co-workers with whom they’ve had close contact.
“They are on the front lines of it,” Poftak said in an interview. “They are providing an essential service. We have worked hard to make sure our bus drivers are safe and to get them equipment. It’s been hard to get [personal protective equipment]. But we’ve tried to get it to them as quickly as we can.“
Poftak said he has been working with employees and their unions to make safety changes on the fly, including disinfecting buses each day.
“I hope drivers understand how important and essential their work is, and I think they do,” he said. “I think they are concerned. Because this is a situation unlike anything any of us has seen. This is uncharted territory for all of us.”
He noted that absenteeism remains at normal levels. But the fact that showing up for work is a closely watched metric indicated a concern for how this is all affecting morale among the MBTA’s workforce.
Neither drivers nor T officials are asking for celebration. They all stressed that they are doing their jobs in a crisis, and are glad to do them.
But the chain of essential workers is longer than it might seem at first glance. No less than the heroic medical personnel they transport, MBTA workers are part of the fight.
“It’s scary because we don’t know who has it,'' Molina said. “It’s an invisible enemy.''