When students in J322 (Reporting Public Issues) transitioned to online learning, one student expressed concern that she had planned to write the best piece of her college career this semester and it would no longer be possible by reporting remotely. Attitudes quickly changed to, “We’ve got this!” And they did. On the final day, that student said she did submit the finest piece – so far – of her college career. The J322 series of articles showcases students' work during this unique moment in history.
Marlowe Blanks works an evening shift as a bus operator at Dallas Area Rapid Transit—starting work in the early afternoon and staying out until about midnight, five days a week. Since Dallas County implemented a shelter-in-place order in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, his hours have stayed the same, but he’s seen significantly less people ride his buses.
“It seems like there is less work, but everybody's still working,” Blanks said.
DART ridership has declined about 70% on buses and 50% on light rail since the shelter-in-place mandate, according to an email from DART spokesperson Mark Ball. While ridership has dropped and county residents have been encouraged to stay home as much as possible, DART employees like Blanks are still working in the field—dealing with adjustments to their routine and new risks brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because public transportation is considered “essential” under the shelter-in-place mandate, all DART employees are expected to work, but some are working in the field and others are working from home, Ball said. DART has 3,973 employees, and just under 3,000 of them are working from home. Many types of employees are still working in the field, including individuals who work in positions related to buses, rail, police, mechanics, maintenance, construction and safety.
Ball said 12 DART employees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of the morning of April 15. Three employees with COVID-19 have returned to work after their required two-week quarantine.
Blanks, who’s been working at DART for about a year, drives a Smart Bus, a smaller type of DART bus that he says seats about 17 people. He says before shelter-in-place, it was common for him to transport about seven people at a time on his bus during rush hour. Now, he’s been transporting less than that in total over his eight-hour shift.
DART, as part of its response to COVID-19, has provided masks, gloves, wipes and sanitizer solution for all operators. It has increased the number of cleanings of buses and trains throughout the day and has been isolating vehicles and areas that have been exposed to unsanitary and unhygienic situations.
Blanks says when he goes to retrieve a bus for the day, he uses the provided cleaning supplies to wipe down his station. He also uses the hand sanitizer. He doesn’t wear a mask because it makes his eyeglasses fog up. “Me and the mask don't get along,” he says.
DART has promoted social distancing and asked customers to maintain a 6-foot distance between other riders and a DART operator whenever possible. Blanks says because of the size of his bus, he’s not confident everyone is staying 6 feet away from each other.
“If you have four people on a bus, I can see that they are stationed where—one person in the back, another one maybe in the middle, another may be closer to me,” Blanks said. “They can position themselves, but is it 6 feet? No.”
DART has also required back door boarding on all buses with two doors. Blanks’ bus only has one door, near the front of the bus, where he sits.
Blanks says when he goes about his job these days, he’s not usually nervous about COVID-19. He says that because he has to work, he’s accepted the possibly that he could get the disease.
The pandemic doesn’t really get to him—except during the brief moments when a passenger has to either pay their fare or swipe a card.
“They're closer to you, and you're aware of that,” Blanks said. “You don't get paranoid, but you do look. It's a raised awareness, just a raised awareness.”
The Amalgamated Transit Union is a labor union that represents transit and allied workers in the U.S. and Canada, and its Dallas branch represents a variety of DART employees such as bus operators, mechanics, supervisors and customer service workers.
Kenneth Day, president of the Dallas branch, said the union’s phone number has served as a “hotline” for workers who have questions or concerns during this pandemic.
“Calls we've been getting is 'I heard somebody tested positive. Are they supposed to notify us?’” Day said. “'Hey, it's crowded in this building, they're not practicing safe distance … Am I eligible to take the leave?’”
Questions about leave, Day says, refer to the ability for employees to take off work based on a federal law that went into effect April 1. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides DART workers with paid time off for reasons such as if they contract the virus, if they are experiencing symptoms of the virus and contact a healthcare provider, if they are caring for someone with the virus, or if they have to stay home because of school closures, he said.
Some of those reasons provide workers time off with regular pay, and others provide them time off with two-thirds of their regular pay, Day said. “They want to know exactly how it works, and, you know, whatever’s going on with them—whether it’s a qualifier or not,” he said.
As early as March 5, the Dallas branch was sending letters to DART, asking for personal protective equipment for employees and rear entry requirement for passengers, and requesting DART hire additional personnel to assure facilities and buses were kept clean.
Day said he’s seen most of these requests translate into action, but there’s one area where he has had pushback from the transit agency. The union has asked DART to raise wages for its employees still working in the field.
“A bus operator is coming in contact with all kinds of folks, all the way for miles,” Day said. “When we agreed to wages, benefits—we didn't anticipate that we were going to be dealing with this virus. We're just right up on it every day, or potentially right up on it.”
Day said DART has a policy that was put in place around 2011 or 2012 for emergency situations. He said the policy, which was related to the issue of inclement weather, said employees working in the field during a declared emergency would receive 15% or more pay per hour.
“We've been trying to get DART to invoke that part of the policy," Day said. "We say, ‘Look, you know, if this is not an emergency, I don't know what an emergency is’ … This is the time. But they've been reluctant to do it.”