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MTA Yanks $500K COVID Death Benefit From Unvaccinated Transit Workers

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MTA employee gets a shot at a COVID-19 vaccination center at the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road Station in Queens, Mar. 25, 2021.

Courtesy of MTA Long Island Rail Road

Struggling to get its workforce vaccinated, the MTA has pulled a $500,000 death benefit for any unvaccinated employees who succumb to COVID, THE CITY has learned.

The MTA this week will extend through the end of the year the lump-sum payment and three years of health insurance to the survivors of vaccinated workers who die from the virus, a senior official said.

But workers who opt out of getting their shots could relinquish the rights of their loved ones to secure the benefit should they die — unless they had a “valid documented exception” to vaccination, according to a notice sent to employees by Paul Fama, the MTA’s chief people officer.

The MTA, which has 68,200 employees, has lost 171 of them to the pandemic so far, according to an agency spokesperson.

“It is more important than ever to consider how getting vaccinated not only protects you, but also your family,” Fama wrote in the memo, which was shared with THE CITY. 

“We highly encourage all our team members to get vaccinated — it’s safe, effective and one of the surest things we can all do to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19.”

The MTA ran a COVID-19 vaccination center in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal.

Marc A. Hermann/ MTA

The vaccine resistance battle is playing out beyond New York as the spread of the Delta variant drives up infection rates. On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued a sweeping order mandating vaccines or weekly testing for everyone from private-sector employees to health care workers to federal contractors. 

With schools set to reopen and 300,000 city employees slated to return to their workplaces Monday, the MTA is still trying to get its workforce on board with vaccines that are mandated for state employees. 

Approximately 70% of staffers agency-wide have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the MTA — although the figure falls to 55% for subway and bus workers.

Vaccination rates vary across the range of MTA divisions, from nearly 89% for workers at MTA Construction & Development to below 60% for employees of MTA Bridges and Tunnels, Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit.

A Widow’s Wish

In the face of resistance from employees, the MTA recently pushed back a Labor Day mandate for workers to get vaccinated or agree to weekly COVID tests, which are now administered at 120 sites throughout the transit system. Testing remains voluntary for now.

“We are incentivizing people to get vaccinated, so we’ve made a lot of progress,” Janno Lieber, the MTA Chairperson and CEO, told THE CITY on Friday. “It’s just like the rest of society — there are people who have questions and, for whatever reason, have elected not to get vaccinated.”

After the MTA lost dozens of employees in the early days of the pandemic, the transit agency agreed in April 2020 to the death benefit pushed for by Transport Workers Union Local 100. The half-million dollar payment is in addition to traditional benefits provided by a pension or life insurance policy.

The agreement did not require proof that workers who were in active service on or after Feb. 1, 2020, had contracted the virus on the job — only that the death was preceded by a COVID-19 infection that was unresolved when they passed away.

The pact was extended in mid-April — even after vaccines became widely available earlier this year — through the end of August. Notice was given at the time that vaccinations would be required to access the benefit as of June.

“This was an unprecedented negotiated agreement. No other workforce that suffered COVID deaths in the city, probably the country, secured employer payments of $500,000 for the victims’ families,” Tony Utano, the president of TWU Local 100 told THE CITY in a statement. “While nothing can fill the void left from each coronavirus-related passing, this agreement put grieving families on solid financial ground and helped tremendously.”

MTA bus maintainer Joseph Fletcher with his family in a photo taken before his death last year.

Courtesy of the Fletcher Family

Veronica Fletcher — whose bus-maintainer husband, Joseph, 60, died in April 2020 — said his 16- and 13-year old sons were vaccinated earlier this year “in honor of their papa.”

Statistics show that people who are vaccinated have far lower infection and death rates than those who haven’t gotten inoculated against a virus that’s killed about 34,000 New Yorkers.

“I wish that my husband had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” said Fletcher, whose family received the death benefit. “We’re trying to live in honor of him.”

‘Not Going to Sway Me’

But several employees told THE CITY they will continue to refuse the vaccine — even with the prospect of their families losing out on the death benefit should they die due to COVID.

“That’s not going to sway me,” said Andy Valentine, a 40-year-old subway operator. “That’s a benefit that is good for the family, I get it, but I feel like they’re trying to coerce you.”

Tiffany Nelson, a 37-year-old station agent, said she is planning to pass on vaccination “until this thing has been fully vetted,” even though the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine last month.

“If you don’t mandate something like the flu vaccine that’s been around for years, how is it that you can mandate something that is literally being tested?” Nelson said. “I’m not taking it, period.”

The MTA debuted “Travels Far: A Memorial Honoring Our Colleagues Lost to COVID-19” at the Bowling Green station in January.

Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Chaumtoli Huq, an associate professor at the CUNY School of Law, said it was “great” that the MTA has offered the death benefit to surviving family members throughout much of the pandemic, but added that it’s now “changing the rules sort of midway.”

“There could be other reasons for an individual not to seek vaccination — health and other personal reasons,” Huq told THE CITY. “So their death benefit should not be conditioned on that, especially when a family is dealing with the loss of a loved one.”

Lieber said the MTA is “redoubling” efforts to get its employees inoculated. The agency has offered workers up to four hours of pay — two hours per each injection — to receive shots.

“This is a public facility,” he said. “We need our customers to be comfortable, we need the workforce to be comfortable, we need their families to be comfortable.”

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