As the anniversary of her husband’s April 2020 death from COVID-19 approaches, Veronica Fletcher is filled with dread, and not just for the obvious reasons.
A mother of two teenage sons and a daughter, Fletcher is a former city schoolteacher who has been on disability since being struck by a truck in November 2016.
Now, she and survivors from nearly 150 families of transit workers who died during the pandemic are facing the end of three years of health insurance that the MTA offered to spouses and dependents up to age 26.
“I am counting down with dread and alarm when it’s going to end, making sure my kids have their braces serviced, that they see their doctors and dentists,” said Fletcher, whose husband Joseph was a 60-year-old city bus maintainer at a Brooklyn depot.
He died April 11, 2020 of complications from coronavirus.
“April is above my head and I’m waiting for something to fall,” Fletcher told THE CITY.
The health insurance that is scheduled to expire was included in a larger family benefit program that included a $500,000 lump-sum payment to the next of kin of MTA employees who died as a result of COVID-19. According to the agency, the program has provided $73.5 million to 147 families since it was launched in April 2020 in response to the overwhelming toll of the pandemic.
“It’s given peace of mind, it’s given a sense of stability, it’s given comfort to know that if there is any issue, we are taken care of,” Fletcher, 49, said of the insurance benefits. “And it lets my children know that their papa is still taking care of them.”
Among state and city agencies, the MTA was particularly hard-hit during the pandemic — as of March 7, 2023, 177 employees had lost their lives due to COVID-19, according to a spokesperson. Most of the victims were subway and bus workers who kept the transit system going as the city grappled with a rampaging virus.
“We will never forget those who we lost to the pandemic,” New York City Transit President Richard Davey told THE CITY in a statement. NYCT is the MTA agency that operates the subways and buses. “Their extraordinary commitment offered New Yorkers access to jobs and healthcare during that difficult time.
“While nothing can replace the loss of loved ones, we hope the support provided by the MTA to the families was supportive and comforting.”
The state agency stressed that the medical coverage was, from the beginning, offered to survivors’ spouses and their dependents for three years after they were certified as eligible.
“If we didn’t have these benefits, we don’t know what we would have done,” said Robert Chumpitaz, 21, whose father Miguel, an MTA bus operator in Brooklyn, died April 9, 2020 at age 60. “If there’s any emergencies, the benefits have been there to help us out.”
But as the window begins to close, the issue of extending the health benefits could come into play in upcoming contract negotiations this spring between the MTA and Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents more than 30,000 transit workers.
Some union leaders are pushing for an extension during negotiations that will take place as the MTA faces its latest funding crisis.
“This should be something that everybody gets on board with, it shouldn’t be a contentious issue,” said JP Patafio, a TWU Local 100 vice president who represents Brooklyn bus operators. “I hope we can find a way with Albany and the MTA to continue to take care of these families.”
In the meantime, survivors have begun receiving letters notifying them of the looming end to the three years of health benefits — and the monthly premiums they would begin paying per month should they continue their coverage under COBRA.
That federal health benefits law extends employment insurance for a limited time, but costs more. After the allowed time period for COBRA coverage ends, the family would need Medicare or another provider.
“Words can’t describe the gratitude I have for the benefits we have had these years,” Fletcher said. “But COBRA for a family, I can’t imagine what those fees would look like.”
Chumpitaz said his family is appreciative of what the MTA has provided since his father died.
“We are grateful,” the college student said.
“But it’s not the same — I would rather have my dad.”