‘We’re Making Death Dollars’: I Drive a Packed New York Bus 13 Hours a Day

‘We’re Making Death Dollars’: I Drive a Packed New York Bus 13 Hours a Day

We’re frontline workers in Westchester County, where the quarantine for the coronavirus in New York began. We’re at the center of the crisis, and we’re completely forgotten about. All the news now is about New York City and the MTA, but they’re not saying anything about other transportation lines. We’re bus drivers, too.

The Bee-Line Bus System, where I work, has two garages—one in Yonkers and the other in Valhalla. Our buses run from the tip of the Bronx into Yonkers and all throughout Westchester. That whole fleet is owned by a company called Liberty Lines, which the Department of Public Works and Transportation in Westchester contracts for its service. Since April 8, we have had 20 workers test positive, and one person die. [Liberty Lines has not responded to VICE’s request for comment.]

Crowded bus

Photo courtesy of the bus driver

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I go in at 5:30 in the morning, and I finish up at 7:30 at night. I do 13 trips a day. That’s not something I would do under normal circumstances. I’ve been there for six years. Instead, I would do about five or six trips. It was ordinary day-to-day living: commuters heading into work, and the elderly going into the city for appointments. The usual. That’s not the case anymore.

The first week when everything really started, in the beginning of March, we barely had anybody riding the bus. The second week, it was almost entirely just essential workers. The third week, after they closed off the front of the buses and waived the fare [to make it free], we started getting everybody and anybody. It’s been utter madness.

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Personally, and I’m not supposed to say this, I only take on 30 people at a time. Nobody is regulating anything if the buses are super crowded. I’m regulating it myself, because there is no one out there assisting us—not the cops, not our supervisors. Unlike the MTA, where there are NYPD officers who enforce laws and precautions. We don’t have that. We’re fending for ourselves. It’s do or die. We have no choice: If we don’t work, we lose our jobs. And we can take a leave, but then we don’t get paid. We’re making death dollars.

When the government began recommending we wear masks, not everybody had them. The drivers who did got them from family members, or somehow found some at the Home Depot or wherever. I was fortunate that my mother works in a hospital, and she was able to get me a box, so I didn’t need one from the union [the TWU Local 100, which also represents MTA workers]. But it was a frenzy again: Everybody was trying to snag one, and then you had people hoarding them, too. We’re not hospital workers. We’re not FDNY. We’re not NYPD. We’re not viewed as a priority.

It wasn’t until April 8 that our union issued us all a single mask. That’s all you get. The other weekend, when I was at work, a newer driver had forgotten his mask, and there was nothing he could do. He just had to drive without one.

We’re not hospital workers. We’re not FDNY. We’re not NYPD. We’re not viewed as a priority.

It’s been rough. At the end of February, my company was giving out pocket-size hand sanitizers. It was a free-for-all—like, take one, take two, or take as many as you want. We were working five days in eight-hour shifts then, which was typical. But by March, everything got much more serious, or at least the country was taking the coronavirus much more seriously. That’s when they changed the schedule and had us working three or four days, to help apparently minimize our exposure.

Then, people started getting sick and calling out and taking leave and just disappearing. So even though we’re still currently working three or four days, the shifts are usually 13 hours total. We only had 450 drivers. And people keep dropping out left and right—like 50 callouts a day. We have others fast-tracking their retirement. I don’t blame them at all: There are single parents, and others worried about the older relatives who they live with. I get it.

You go past Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx, and it’s, you know, people in the park. Drivers like me are looking at this going, “It’s so unfair.” I’m a never-ending witness. We’re out here dealing with this pandemic all day long. We’re seeing nurses getting on our buses crying, saying things like, “I had 100 patients die on me today.” There’s a whole testing facility in Valhalla, and we drop off people who are going to get tested, and then we pick them back up. There’s also a jail, hospital, and homeless shelter in the area, which is now closed. So not only are we transporting potentially sick passengers, but they’re mixing with nurses and homeless people who have nowhere to go—and, up until a few weeks ago, probably even visitors who were heading to see an inmate.

I’m a never-ending witness. We’re out here dealing with this pandemic all day long.

Meanwhile, there are kids, many of them probably with parents who still have to work, hopping on the bus because it’s free and riding two stops to McDonald’s. I watched an old lady with a walker get off to go to Staples. What’s so essential about Staples? It was like she had nothing to do or was bored—that she was going to run some quick errands and didn’t realize the person most at risk of contracting the virus and potentially dying would be herself. And then there are people—grown adults—who are going about their business without a care in the world.

Our realities aren’t the same.

1587153891753-sign

Photo courtesy of the bus driver

Because of the HIPAA law, Liberty Lines of course can’t tell us which employees get sick, or who tests positive; they can only give us an update on how many are. We figured if someone tested positive, we’d be accommodated better. But there has really been nothing. The company listens to Andrew Cuomo, and he seems to be saying everything’s still fine with public transportation. But he’s not on the bus. He’s not on the train.

Some of the bus drivers, about a hundred of us, started a group chat to keep one another informed. We send updates about what’s happening in Mount Vernon, or what’s happening in Yonkers. We have to keep ourselves educated about what’s going on around us.

News 12 comes in one day, and management is telling them how great a job they’re doing. The cameras come out, and they turn into the perfect company.

And you as a person can tell your fellow bus drivers, “Listen, I tested positive.” When that happens, it spreads through the whole company like wildfire—and then the company will come back and say things like, “That’s a rumor. That’s disconcerting.” In one instance, they sent us a memo stating that it was a rumor, and then by the next day, they had to walk that claim back and say that it was actually confirmed. We already knew that it was true. And it was as if they were faulting us: We weren’t washing our hands, we weren’t following protocol, we weren’t being careful not to touch our faces. It’s not our fault.

Then News 12 comes in one day, and management is telling them how great a job they’re doing. The cameras come out, and they turn into the perfect company. Listen, I don’t totally blame the company or the union. I don’t totally blame anybody, but nothing was done fast enough.

I don’t have any answers, though. At the very least, I would like some more enforcement of social distancing. I drive through this almost every day. There are people literally hanging around outside, as if nothing is happening. It’s one thing in the poorer neighborhoods, but even in the wealthier ones, like in Scarsdale, people are jogging or letting their kids ride their scooters all over the place. Don’t you have a huge home and a stupidly big backyard?

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