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'People are dying': Low-wage workers terrified of taking public transit to work amid coronavirus

Max Zahn
Reporter

Sara Fearrington, a server at Waffle House in Durham, North Carolina, says she usually takes the bus 40 minutes each way to work. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, she’s been terrified of getting infected during her commute — but she doesn’t have any other option. 

“It’s virtually impossible for any commuter on the bus to not have some type of exposure,” says Fearrington, 44, who makes $3.10 per hour plus tips, adding she’s worried about bringing the disease home and endangering her husband who has a lung disease. Her shifts have been cut to one or two a week due to loss of dine-in business, and she said she shouldn’t have to choose between traveling to work and paying her bills.

“People are dying,” she says. “It’s not showing care, love, or concern for our lives.”

Fearrington is one of roughly 2.8 million American workers in essential sectors who commute on public transportation amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to advocacy group TransitCenter, which drew on 2018 Census data. Meanwhile, low-wage workers in the U.S. rely on public transportation for their commutes more than their upper-income counterparts, according to the 2018 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census.

‘Harsh trade-offs’ for low-wage workers

But the coronavirus outbreak has raised serious concerns about whether it’s safe to get to work that way, as transit workers get sick, transportation systems cut service, and the Centers for Disease Control urges people to maintain six feet between one another. Low-wage workers and union officials called on employers to ensure that workers can get to their jobs safely, and as necessary provide paid sick leave in the event they contract the disease.

(Waffle House did not respond to a request for comment.)

“There are harsh trade-offs that low-wage workers have to make,” Sara McLafferty, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who focuses on mass transit, told Yahoo Finance. “These workers generally don’t have the option to work at home and stay in their bubble, so they’re not only exposed to the virus but also exposed to even worse economic hardship otherwise.”

For instance, in New York City low-wage workers are as much as twice as likely to commute on mass transit than higher-paid workers, McLafferty said, referring to research she co-authored. But the public transit system in New York City is under duress, as 41 transit workers have died, and more than 6,000 have gotten ill or self-quarantined, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

“Concerns about virus exposure — that’s very real,” McLafferty says.

A bus driver wears a mask following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Mary Kay Henry, the president of the two-million member Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, told Yahoo Finance that companies should take responsibility for the safety of workers on their commute, just as they should their financial well-being.

“A lot of working people have no way to get to work besides mass transit, and a key question we have to ask ourselves is how do we as a nation meet the moment?” Kay Henry says.

“That’s why a key demand of ours is job, wage, and economic security for every worker, which includes thinking about transportation needs that people have that are extraordinary in this time,” she adds.

‘The idea of social distancing becomes very complicated’

The CDC recommends that Americans avoid crowded places and stay distant from one another when at all possible. To be sure, some public health experts have said there’s no evidence to suggest public transportation is more dangerous than other gathering places, like grocery stores, where people may come in contact with each other. Experts are divided on whether the virus can spread through air.

Efforts to remain socially distant prove challenging for low-wage employees forced to go into work, Wes Moore, CEO of New York City-based anti-poverty organization Robin Hood, told Yahoo Finance’s On the Move on Tuesday.

“When we’re talking about who are the essential workers — who are the people who have to go to work to be able to come in — many of them are low-wage workers,” Moore says.

“People who have to go out, and the idea of social distancing becomes very complicated,” he adds.

Jamila Allen, 23, has worked for the past two years at Freddy’s, a fast-food restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, where she commutes on two buses that take an hour combined each way. The trip to work remains crowded, despite the coronavirus, she said — though the number of riders on the trip back at night has declined.

“You don’t know who has the virus,” she says.

During her most recent commute, on Saturday, she said that overall the buses were “quite crowded,” with many people wearing masks. (Freddy’s did not respond to a request for comment.)

“I’m taking a risk every day getting on the bus,” says Allen, who makes $9 per hour. “I’m risking my safety for poverty wages.”


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