Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that MTA employees must be vaccinated by Labor Day or undergo weekly COVID tests — but some workers said they’d never get the shots, even after losing over 160 colleagues to the virus.
The new measures for MTA and Port Authority employees in New York come as COVID cases and hospitalizations in the state climb as the Delta variant spreads.
“We beat the damn thing by being smart the first time,” Cuomo said Monday morning while flanked by the heads of both regional transportation agencies. “Be smart again.”
Just over 75% of adults statewide have received at least one dose, according to state data. The MTA estimates that 70% of its workforce has been vaccinated to date — but that figure falls to about 44% among the more than 50,000 subway and bus workers, agency figures show.
“It’s great progress, but we can and have to do better,” said Janno Lieber, the agency’s new acting chairman and chief executive officer.
Transit officials have acknowledged the challenge of convincing some employees to get vaccinated. Union officials, meanwhile, seconded the call for universal vaccinations for their more than 35,000 members.
“It’s the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones,” said Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100.
But some workers told THE CITY they won’t get the shots — and would quit if ever forced.
They also predicted the time taken for weekly tests will further slow down a transit system already staggered by crew shortages the MTA has pinned on a long hiring freeze and a rush of retirements.
“If they’re having trouble making service now because of manpower shortages, just wait until they mandate employees to take a vaccine they don’t want to take,” said Canella Gomez, a train operator who has not been vaccinated. “Lots of people still aren’t going to take it.”
Richard Richards, a 46-year-old subway train operator, said in May that he didn’t trust the vaccines and added Monday that has not changed.
“I’ll be tested weekly without a problem,” he said. “But I’m still not getting vaccinated.”
Vax Proof for New City Jobs
Cuomo’s announcement came as Mayor Bill de Blasio and city health officials recommended that vaccinated New Yorkers wear masks in indoor public settings — and announced that newly hired city employees will have to show proof of vaccination when reporting to work.
The scrambling at the city and state level highlighted how the Delta variant is creating new challenges for New Yorkers and public officials.
The MTA has offered workers four hours of pay to get the shots and set up vaccination and testing sites throughout the transit system. On Monday, Lieber said the agency will now “flood the zone” with mobile vaccination units to give workers “maximum convenience” to receive vaccines.
But the transit agency — which has suffered at least 168 employee deaths during the pandemic — still faces hurdles among holdouts in a workforce that is more than 50% Black and Hispanic, groups with low vaccination rates.
“Think about it, the MTA is a microcosm of our communities,” said Tramell Thompson, a Black, unvaccinated subway conductor who founded Progressive Action, a faction of transit workers. “We are reluctant to take the vaccine because we just don’t have the same trust in government as everyone else.”
Gomez added that some transit workers are distrustful of the MTA over the early days of the COVID crisis, when workers complained about a shortage of protective personal equipment — even as the MTA’s 2012 pandemic plan called for N95 masks, hand sanitizer and gloves to be stockpiled.
“He wasn’t mandating nothing when we were dropping like flies,” Gomez said of Cuomo.
“I don’t really trust [New York City] Transit when it comes to anything they are doing,” said subway conductor Crystal Young, 40.
The son of a Queens subway station worker who died in April told THE CITY he understood why some of his father’s coworkers are resistant to the vaccine, but that he wants everybody to get their shots.
“People don’t make the best calculations when there is fear,” said the son, who asked that his and his father’s names be withheld. “They might miss the danger that is in front of them.”
Cuomo said 3.5 million people statewide have not received at least one vaccination and that hospitalizations and infection rates have “basically doubled” over the past month.
“We have a situation, as they say,” Cuomo said. “It’s a serious situation and I want to start to address it.”