Throughout the pandemic, essential workers have been on the frontlines of the virus keeping American society functioning. That includes transportation workers, who have continued to shuttle millions of people around American cities in close quarters on buses and trains. Recently, a group of labor unions brought forth a petition to seek more protection for transportation workers amid the spread of coronavirus, asking for a federal mask requirement for passengers. But last week, the Trump administration refused to back such an order, a move Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden described as "appalling."
Concerns of public transportation workers surrounding the coronavirus are not unfounded. In New York, the coronavirus worker death toll among Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers reached 123 by May, with subway crews among the hardest hit. In Philadelphia, a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority bus driver died of coronavirus following union claims that not enough was being done to protect workers during the pandemic.
In a letter to the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO labor federation, Stephen G. Bradbury, the general counsel and acting deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, wrote that while the DOT "shares the concerns expressed in the petition ... most state, local, and private sector transportation entities have adopted policies requiring face mask usage. The [DOT] also embraces the notion that there should be no more regulations than necessary."
Bradbury's letter came on the same day that President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and at least three U.S. senators all announced that they had tested positive for coronavirus. In a statement, Transportation Trades Department President Larry Willis said, "It is unfathomable that in the midst of a global pandemic which has killed more than 209,000 Americans, and left millions more sick and potentially facing lifelong side effects — including the president of the United States — that the U.S. Department of Transportation would outright reject such a simple, science-backed, lifesaving measure. The DOT’s decision is heartbreaking, and in light of yesterday’s news, frankly, shocking."
It is true that a number of agencies have developed their own mask requirements. However, it's not hard to understand why transportation workers would prefer a clear federal standard. As Willis noted, "A federal commercial passenger and public transportation mask mandate would have offered an additional layer of protection not only for these workers, but the passengers they serve."
Unfortunately, the DOT's decision was to be expected given the Trump administration's overall anti-mask agenda. It's also in line with the administration's failures to protect essential workers. As Trump and other Republicans pushed states to "re-open" ahead of medical advice, many front-line workers were forced to choose between a paycheck and their health.
The consequences of this aren't just limited to the individual who must return to work at a restaurant or a teacher returning to school. In his statement, Willis noted that passengers on public transportation now are often "other essential workers just trying to get to their jobs on the frontlines of the pandemic, or working families on their way to get groceries, medical appointments, or check in with loved ones."
In stark contrast to Trump, Biden has supported wearing masks. Earlier this summer, he said every governor should issue a three-month mask mandate. And during a virtual town hall with the Amalgamated Transit Union on Saturday, Business Insider reported that Biden said the DOT had "stupidly" rejected the petition.
"You wear a mask to protect the person next to you," Biden said. "You wear a mask to protect the bus driver. You wear a mask to protect the person you're sitting next to on the bus. And to reject the chance to do the easiest thing possible to save lives, I find it appalling."