This week, Halifax Transit buses have been operating at less-than-optimal intervals. Between 20 and 40 routes have had at least one cancelled trip on any given day, some routes more than once.
The reason? Transit operators are sick with COVID-19 and isolating due to possible exposure. “I have four positive bus operators right now,” says Ken Wilson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508.
For exposures, the number is somewhere between 40 and 50, but it fluctuates so frequently Wilson can’t keep up. “Because once someone get a negative test, if they weren’t a close contact they can come back to work,” he says. “So the numbers fluctuate five or six here or there. I’ve got three operators today that got negative tests —they usually go right back to work either this afternoon or tomorrow.”
Aside from impacting how quickly essential workers can get to their jobs, the bus exposures are concerning in other ways.
“The frontline workers have concerns about their safety, with social distancing,” says Wilson. “And not just for themselves but for their passengers, for their families, we have a lot of friends that use the system that we see everyday, a lot of regular passengers.”
During the first wave of COVID-19 in HRM, transit switched to back-door loading and waived fees for passengers to eliminate contact.
“It was very easy to identify, it was easy to publicize, it was easy for the operators to manage and the public accepted that,” says Wilson. “We want to see all first wave measures re-implemented for Halifax Transit. Back-door boarding, suspend fares, social distancing to 50 percent of seating capacity so no one’s standing.”
But HRM says it won’t be doing that during the third wave because it already installed transparent barriers at the front of the bus.
“From the outset of the pandemic, Halifax Transit has implemented several measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, including mandatory masks, daily sanitizing of high-touch surfaces, as well as the installation of polycarbonate shields next to the bus operators and blocking the first seat behind the driver on conventional buses,” says a May 6 release from HRM.
But Wilson disagrees. “The shields are drastically reduced at the fare box so that the operator can see out to the right-hand mirror,” he explains. “That’s the most compromising position of the shield because when people come in and pay their fare or ask you a question, they drop their mask and they talk to you over top of the shield.”
A few weeks into lockdown, on May 3, HRM said it would be installing signage on every second seat to prevent patrons from sitting too close together. But Wilson says they have yet to be installed.
When they do get installed, there’s also nothing a bus driver can do if a rider disobeys the signage or wants to stand in the aisle—because buses aren’t actually limited to 50 percent capacity.
“Just because a sign says ‘please don’t sit here’ doesn’t mean that we can stop you from sitting there,” says Wilson. “It doesn’t mean that because the seat is now out of service that you can’t stand beside the person sitting down.”
For the average 40-foot bus, 50 percent capacity would mean 36 available seats become 18, and for an articulated 60-foot bus, 53 available seats would become 26.
While HRM says average bus usage does not exceed 50 percent, Wilson says he’s heard from drivers whose routes have had standing room only. “Members were sharing pictures with me today this morning, 35 people on a bus standing right up to the driver’s line,” he says. “We’re still getting busy trips depending on the weather, depending on the time of the month if old-age security is out or baby bonus is out or family allowance is out, the buses get busy. If it’s a nice evening or a nice night people will get onto the buses, especially teenagers.”
In other cases, drivers have to deal with riders who aren’t wearing masks at all. Bus drivers are left with little recourse for those who don’t obey public health orders.
“All we’re allowed to do is remind the customer that a mask is mandatory,” Wilson says. “And if they say I don’t want to wear one of ‘F you’ or whatever else, then that’s our problem to deal with. So most operators are trying to ignore it and bite their tongue.”
HRM refused a request for an interview from The Coast, but its latest release on May 6 says “the municipality is taking every reasonable measure to ensure the safety of its workers and work places.”
Wilson says that isn’t good enough when it comes to things like exposure notices and cleaning protocols.
“I pull my bus in at 7 o’clock it gets cleaned, wiped down and then parked for the rest of the night until the first operator takes it the next day. And then it doesn’t get cleaned again until that bus comes back in that next night,” he says. “Now, the operator is tasked with wiping down the operator’s area, but there could be as many as five drivers on one bus.”
Last week, public health changed the way exposure notices work, and only passengers are required to isolate after a bus exposure, not drivers. “If there’s an exposure on the Route 3 and I drove the Route 3 for eight hours for that whole eight-hour exposure, public health is saying to me that I don’t have to go get a test but every passenger that’s been on the bus for 15 minutes or more has to,” says Wilson. This is backed up by a letter from provincial top doc Robert Strang.
Even though it’s not technically required, these drivers are isolating anyway.
“What’s happening is we’re telling our members not to follow Transit’s messaging,” says Wilson. “We call public health and my members are being told by public health to self-isolate and wait for a test. And in some cases public health has told us to call the police because our employer can’t tell us not to self-isolate”
Wilson says drivers are increasingly worried as cases grow, and the union wants to see testing implemented at the Halifax Transit workplace, as well as priority vaccinations.
“You rapid test them every morning,” he says. “Then you know if a transit worker has it they’re not going to carry it on to the public.”
Wilson hopes to see change soon, because right now drivers are covering extra shifts, working unfamiliar routes and getting burnt out.
“We’re overworked,” he says. “Dealing with all the issues with life and the pandemic and homeschooling and all that, it’s a lot of stress to deal with. And then to be forced [to work] on your day off because they’re short, or be told you have to do a couple hours extra after your day ends, it’s becoming challenging.”