Mell Montezuma

As the entire city shelters in place, the essential infrastructure of Chicago is still running. And while ridership is down citywide, buses and trains continue to keep normal schedules. 

But the CTA does not run itself. This means that close to 10,000 employees, including transit operators, janitors, instructors, and others, are still working, and many of them have to stay in crowded, enclosed spaces for eight to twelve hours a day.

“We have a great level of anxiety and anguish about not being able to be home with our families in a safe environment,” Ken Franklin, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 308, which represents 3,000 rail operators, told the Weekly.

Just like health care providers, transit operators are frontline workers who strive to keep the lives of the rest of Chicagoans as normal as possible. Simply labeling them as “essential workers,” however, glosses over the fact that they are also marginalized communities who are more vulnerable than many other workers at this point.

CTA operators also may be disproportionately at risk of suffering from coronavirus-related illness and death. On April 5, WBEZ reported that seventy percent of people who have died from COVID-19 in Chicago were Black; according to a 2009 report on diversity hiring in the CTA (the most recent information available) about sixty-five percent of its workforce was Black. 

Despite social distancing guidelines, most CTA terminals do not have the capacity to allow adequate physical separation. Unlike riders who would be able to spread out across eight rail cars on the Red Line, for example, employees are unable to do so due to limited space, Franklin said. While some terminals, such as the ones at the 95th Street and Howard Street Red Line stops, are larger, there are also more workers inside them. 

The possibility of getting infected drastically increases in such an environment. According to Franklin, as of April 1, five workers at the Howard terminal tested positive for COVID-19, one of whom was only given the test after they developed serious symptoms and had to go to an emergency room. A Pace bus driver tested positive on March 26. Others are waiting for accurate classification of confirmed cases from the CTA, but it is not easy: the employee had to get their Leave of Absence paperwork approved by ReedGroup, an absence management services company, and the CTA then got the paperwork from ReedGroup. 

“That is an administrative nightmare because they all have to be talking in order to approve, pay, and so forth,” Franklin said. 

Currently, test sites are still limited in number and hard to access; one has to show symptoms and contact a health care provider in order to get tested. However, for at-risk groups such as transit operators, the longer the wait, the greater their anxiety that they could be bringing the coronavirus home and infecting their families.

Meanwhile, the ATU says that sanitization of trains is not sufficient protection for workers. On March 25, the ATU called for stronger protections for transit workers, including providing them with personal protective equipment (PPE)  and extending paid leave for workers who displayed symptoms, were exposed to symptomatic persons, or who had child care obligations due to shutdowns. These demands were echoed in a March 27 post on the Active Transportation Alliance’s website that also called on the CTA to consult with public health officials, extend hazard pay to workers, make cleaning schedules publicly available, and inspect air filtration systems. The union also demanded the CTA eliminate fares and allow rear-door entry on buses to support social distancing; on April 9, Mayor Lightfoot announced the CTA would do so until further notice. 

In a statement to the Weekly, a CTA representative said “all CTA bus and rail operators and maintenance employees have been provided with proper PPE. CTA has issued masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to its employees…. Following the change in guidance [around wearing masks] from the CDC and CDPH, we immediately began the procurement process to locate and purchase additional masks. Masks began to be issued to on-duty employees mid-last week.”

Franklin told the Weekly that CTA has not yet taken any measures towards changing the cleaning schedules or inspecting air filtration systems. In the statement, the CTA representative said “our vehicles and facilities are cleaned and disinfected throughout each day, and receive deeper cleanings nightly and on a regular basis.” They added, “there is no evidence to support any claim that air filtration systems have any impact at all on the spread of COVID-19…. Per CDPH, air filtration systems for vehicles like our rail cars or buses are not designed to be medical grade.”

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Retail Workers Are Beginning to Die from COVID-19

Retail workers are also facing increased infection risks compared to those in other sectors. In late March, two employees at a Walmart in southwest suburban Evergreen ParkPhillip Thomas, 48, and Wando Evans, 51died after contracting COVID-19

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, grocery store workers are risking their lives every day. Individual stores have also adopted different measures regarding whether employees are required to wear masks and gloves. Some stores have not closed for deep-clean days after crew members reported COVID-19 cases, the New York Times reported.

The Trader Joe’s Union Coalition started a petition last month asking for hazard pay for workers due to the pandemic. The company raised wages by two dollars an hour for all employees, but according to the Twitter account of a group of Trader Joe’s organizers, the company stopped short of referring to the increase as hazard pay. On April 6, the Washington Post reported that a Trader Joe’s worker in New York State died from COVID-19. 

To essential workers facing anti-union efforts, small wage increases may be far from enough. According to a March 31 report by the Brookings Institution, workers in transit, grocery stores, packaging, and manufacturing are usually minimum-wage employees who carry less health-related insurance than health care providers or white-collar employees. The report asserted that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act does little to protect these workers. 

At the time of publication, Trader Joe’s had not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Weekly.

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South Suburban Factory Workers Are Contracting COVID-19

Jorge Mujica, an organizer for the labor rights advocacy group Arise Chicago, told the Weekly about the working conditions at the West Chicago food production company Jel Sert. In late March, employers at Jel Sert’s candy production line were told that at least one of their co-workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and been sent home by the company several days before. It had been days since Governor J.B. Pritzker had issued the stay-at-home order to close all nonessential businesses. 

“The workers went out crazy,” Mujica said; they were angry that management had not informed them sooner. “These workers were working there for two weeks where they shouldn’t.” The business claimed that the workers are essential because the candy they produce is food, and argued the workers had to keep working for that reason. 

Mujica’s team helped the workers send letters to the factory, asking them to close the factory in compliance with Pritzker’s executive order directing non-essential businesses to close. The company kept running for three days, and then was closed for four days for deep cleaning. Half of the workers did not come back the following week, and the company then shut down.

“We are getting more and more reports. Today, we are getting ten more cases of workers reporting that their co-workers have been diagnosed [with COVID-19].” Mujica said.

A representative of Jel Sert told the Weekly that the company has been fully transparent, and said management relied on employees to inform them when they had tested positive for COVID-19. She added that Jel Sert followed CDC guidelines outlined on a DuPage County Health Department website for ensuring workers’ safety during the production process. According to the company’s website, when workers enter the workplace, they have to fill out a health survey, and those who do not fulfill the health requirements were placed on a fourteen-day paid quarantine.

Mujica’s team primarily works with workers who are unfamiliar with unions. Many of them are undocumented immigrants who lack knowledge of the protections provided to them under labor law. Moreover, the greater fear about losing their job and being deported left them no choice but to keep working even during the pandemic. 

For example, delivery workers have to work overnight. A typical day for a paper delivery person is to get to the warehouse at 2am, package newspapers, and head out on their route at 5am. For three hours, around eighty workers are crowded together in one small place. While social distancing guidelines exist, the warehouse does not have capacity for them to spread out, nor are there hygiene or safety measures, according to Mujica, who claims dirty bathrooms are common at worksites he has organized in the past.

As COVID-19 cases continue to mount, concerns about “essential” workers’ health may catalyze more labor actions. And who gets to take advantage of work-from-home arrangements is revealing the startling class differences in America.  

“People working from home are working at a distance, so they don’t have any problems,” Mujica said. “But the thing is, essential workers are reporting more and more [COVID-19 diagnoses].”

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Yiwen Lu is a politics reporter for the Weekly. She last covered the Democratic primary in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.

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