By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward County government employees are testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, but county bosses are covering it up – not informing co-workers about their possible exposure and not following federal recommendations to promote safety in the workplace.
Broward County Transit, which provides fixed-route bus, express bus, community shuttles and paratransit, has four employees who have tested positive, said William Howard, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1267. That includes one assistant superintendent in the transit division, who tested positive in mid-March. That official “handles 95 percent of discipline hearings in the Copans [Road] garage and comes into comes in contact with a large number of employees,” Howard said.
Three more transit employees are awaiting COVID-19 test results.
None of those positive tests were disclosed to transit workers or union officials, according to Howard, whose local represents about 900 bus drivers, mechanics, storekeepers and cleaners. Howard said he learned about most of those virus-positive cases because the employees disclosed themselves.
The union can’t get answers from the county’s Human Resources division. “I sent email asking what is the county doing about notification and of course I haven’t gotten a response,” said Howard. “They don’t take suggestions from the union very well.’’
On Monday, Broward Human Resources director David Kahn said via email that 13 county employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Three work at the airport, four in human services, two in public works and four in transit.
“When the County learns of someone feeling ill with symptoms similar to COVID-19, that individual is immediately sent home and instructed to contact the Florida Department of Health,” Kahn said. “When the County learns that someone has tested positive for COVID-19, the supervisor contacts the employees who have been in contact with that individual advising them that an employee who has been physically present in the office has tested positive.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Howard. “They certainly haven’t passed that down to their superintendents.”
Heard it through the grapevine
For Howard, the apparent lack of any county policies or procedures to notify workers when they may have been exposed to COVID-19 is also personal. He works closely with the assistant supervisor who went sick on March 18, came back to work on March 24 and was sent home again before finding out he’d tested positive around March 27.
“He’d been coughing. I sat right in front of him. He has an office the size of a closet,” said Howard. “I wasn’t too happy when I heard through the grapevine he had it.” Howard, 66, is currently self-isolating at home. He has asthma and is at higher risk for developing serious complications should he catch the virus.
A Broward bus operator who asked not to be named also awaits the results of a COVID-19 test after being exposed the same way. “It started as a rumor that somebody in management had tested positive,” the driver said. “I know you can’t release names, but I think the county should have put something up that somebody in the building has tested positive so you should watch yourself for symptoms.”
The law does not require such notification, but Howard said the county has a “moral obligation” to tell employees if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. Federal guidance recently issued by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration says, “Employers should inform and encourage employees to self-monitor for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 if they suspect possible exposure.” But even that tepid imperative doesn’t apply to Broward County. State and local government workers aren’t covered by OSHA.
“My biggest problem right now is employees coming in sick and because they don’t have any sick or vacation time left they’re pushing the envelope and are afraid to tell the employer they have symptoms,” said Howard.
Transit employees and others familiar with what is happening provided similar accounts. All were dismayed at the county administration’s decision not to warn them about possible exposure.
“They just have no empathy for the riding public or the drivers,” said one longtime transit employee.
“To them, we’re cattle,” said a bus driver. “We are the bottom of the rung at transit. They don’t care about us. They never have. They just want buses to go out and move so they can collect their federal funding. To hell with the consequences.”
April Williams is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1591. She represents about 1,000 white-collar county workers in across every department. She also works as a counselor at Broward Addiction Recovery Center (BARC). Williams said Friday that union members are currently awaiting COVID-19 test results. Four persons tested earlier came back negative.
None of that was disclosed by the county, she said. “I found out from a private setting. Going out to dinner and talking with someone.”
“What they did if someone had to go home because they were sick… They’re telling them don’t say anything.”
More concerning to Williams are the county’s insufficient protections for workers on the job.
“People don’t mind working. We understand we’re essential. We want protective gear. We need dividers and partitions and masks and gloves,” she said. “We’ve asked. They’re on back order.”
‘A controlled suicide’
Howard agreed. “Public transit is still needed. There are a lot of people who don’t have cars and have to get out and around. We have Express service that takes doctors and nurses to Jackson Memorial Hospital,” he said. “But it’s like a controlled suicide for some of our older guys. At least give us gloves and masks.”
Howard said 130 Broward bus operators are 60 or older, including “a lot in their 70s and two who are 80 years old. They are at high risk.”
Two or three weeks ago, Howard said, the county provided drivers with three-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer. But many of those bottles ran out and the county has not figured out a way to provide refills. “They were gonna do an exchange program. Where are the refills? They say, ‘We’re working on it. We have to get this approved.’ But to get anything done in this place is always an act of God.”
Sanitary wipes are also running short, Howard said. “Now they’re only wiping down the car keys when operators also have to touch the steering wheel and handle of somebody driving before them.”
The union has had zero success in convincing the county to install high grade air filters on its fleet. The union wants the county to switch to two-stage HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters that Howard said will catch “any kind of virus or bacteria. Right now they have the cheapest air filter on the buses which only captures large particles. They cost 100 to 300 bucks apiece and can last up to a year if properly maintained. Property management says they’re looking into it. By that time, it’ll be December.”
Broward County Transit has made some recent changes to try and make buses safer for all. Schedules have been reduced, and to promote social distancing, the number of riders on a standard 40-foot bus is now limited to no more than 20, and 30 riders on 60-foot buses. And riders, except for those needing the wheelchair ramp, now get on and off only through the rear door.
Buses are also cleaned and sanitized after they end for the day.
But another big change, temporarily suspending fares for all county bus service as of March 24, has had unintended consequences.
According to Howard and a bus driver interviewed for this story, large numbers of the homeless are using the free rides to “ride all over town” and hog seats.
“They can’t go to the mall or the park so they’re on the bus all day long taking up seats for people that have to go somewhere. They’re coughing and hacking and sneezing. It’s nasty,” said Howard.
“They’re just joyriding because it’s free,” said the bus driver. “But if I have six of them on and my bus is full, I can’t pick up a nurse or someone in scrubs coming home or going to work. I have to pass them up because of these guys.”