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Lawmaker raises concerns about MTA's dispersal of protective equipment

A Long Island Rail Road worker, with a

A Long Island Rail Road worker, with a mask, checks a train at the station in Jamaica. The MTA says it has distributed more than 6.4 million masks to employees. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A state lawmaker from Long Island has raised new concerns over measures put in place by the MTA during the pandemic to protect its workers, including Long Island Rail Road employees who, according to a key union official, have “experienced frustrations” with getting adequate face masks and other safety equipment.

In a letter to Patrick Foye, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent company — Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said the “alarming issues” came to light during a virtual hearing held by the State Legislature last week.

“The testimony of our front-line workers raised some alarming issues about an apparent disconnect in communication between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its agencies, and inconsistencies in safety guidelines and issuance of personal protective equipment,” Gaughran wrote in the letter.

Gaughran said he was “dismayed” to learn there was an insufficient amount of face masks, sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and other personal protective equipment available to employees “to protect themselves and the public.”

He also said he was troubled to hear that safety guidelines and procedures were not clearly communicated to workers and not tailored to specific job duties, leaving some employees “confused, unprotected and unsure of protocols.”

Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR’s largest union, was among those who testified at the hearing, including about “inconsistencies and flawed practices that continued throughout the pandemic and remain today.” As an example, Simon said MTA leadership would publicly announce the issuance of personal protective equipment to workers, “when these products were not making it to employees for days or weeks after the announcement.”

“We experienced frustrations with having to ration masks early on, and to advocate for sanitizer and wipes throughout the pandemic,” Simon said in an interview Tuesday. “Those items did not come as easily as advertised.”

During the hearing, Foye said the agency “never had a shortage of PPE” and has a sufficient stockpile even in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 in the region.

MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins said Tuesday that, to date, the agency has distributed to employees more than 6.4 million masks, 8 million pairs of gloves, 57,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and more than 12,000 face shields.

“The MTA’s highest priority is the safety of our customers and employees, and we will continue to work closely with our labor partners to keep New York moving forward,” Collins said.

Gaughran suggested in his letter that MTA leaders have “a proactive, on-the-ground presence to fully appreciate and understand the challenges” faced by workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 130 MTA workers, including one LIRR employee.

LIRR president Phillip Eng said railroad management “has been proactive communicating with staff and labor from the very beginning of the pandemic,” including by visiting work sites to directly answer questions and address concerns.

Eng said LIRR management also visited specific work sites whenever there was a COVID-19 positive test there, or “rumored positive,” to speak with staff, and installed hand sanitizer dispensers throughout employee facilities.

“Our efforts helped flatten the curve not only on Long Island, but within our workforce, achieved working together with labor leaders,” Eng said. “This couldn’t have been done without working together with labor.”

The growing tension between the MTA and its unions comes as agency leaders last week said that without a $12 billion bailout from the federal government, they would have to resort to drastic cost-cutting measures, including the potential layoffs of thousands of workers.

Gaughran, in his letter, threw his support behind the unions, writing that “it would be misguided for any cuts to happen on the backs of these essential workers.”

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