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LIRR, hit hard on different fronts by crisis, tries to forge ahead

A LIRR conductor working without a mask on

A LIRR conductor working without a mask on his face while another work has her face covered at the station in Freeport on Friday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

LIRR management and union leaders are urging workers to do their part to keep the commuter railroad system moving, even as hundreds of employees are on the sidelines, including dozens who have tested positive for coronavirus.

Even with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — scaling back service to accommodate a 90% drop in ridership, and to help limit employees’ exposure to the virus, the rate of infection among the MTA’s 50,000 workers continues to climb at an alarming rate.

The MTA said Tuesday that nearly 600 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, including 10 who have died from it. More than 3,000 others have been ordered to quarantine at home because of potential exposure to the virus. Among those infected is the MTA’s top official — chairman and chief executive Patrick Foye, who commutes daily on the LIRR’s Port Washington Branch. He has said he has "a very mild case" and is recuperating at home.

At the Long Island Rail Road, as of Wednesday, 69 workers had tested positive, with another 336 quarantined, union officials said. The rate of spread among the workforce has raised concerns among healthy workers.

While acknowledging fear among some members, union leaders said  their members understand the importance of continuing to transport essential workers to and from their jobs. And, as quarantined employees are cleared to return to work, many are doing so. Union officials said 76 LIRR workers on Wednesday alone returned to their jobs after temporarily being forced to stay home.

“I understand the fear, but we are essential employees," said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the LIRR’s largest union. "Know this: We are going to do everything in our power to protect them, as well as to protect the riding public.”

The MTA said it has taken several measures to protect employees from the spread of the virus, including by suspending cash transactions on LIRR trains and by increasing the frequency and intensity of disinfecting efforts in trains, stations and employee facilities.

The MTA also has distributed 240,000 masks and 3.2 million gloves to employees whose jobs require it, although those protections remain optional for most LIRR employees, including front-line conductors who walk through train cars and collect fares from riders.

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“Additionally, the MTA continues to replenish and maintain a stockpile of these essential items so that we can continue to distribute them as we have not yet reached the apex of the crisis and expect it to continue for some time,” MTA chief safety officer Patrick Warren said in a statement. “It’s crucial that we have the ability to protect our workforce and customers, not just today — but going forward during this unprecedented event.”

Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, which represents about 900 LIRR workers, pointed to other critical changes in protocol that are less noticeable to the public. Work crews are being allowed to travel directly to job sites from their homes using their personal vehicles — minimizing interaction with other workers at headquarters and in company trucks that sometimes transport six workers at a time.

Natale said employees also are working in pairs, rather than in larger groups, staggering their hours, and trying their best to keep their distance from one another.

“There are a lot of members who are really afraid to come to work, and they are able to call out sick if that’s a problem. But the majority have been coming in. I think they understand how critical it is that we continue to work,” said Natale, who praised railroad management for its efforts in protecting workers.

“If we ask for something safety related, they’re bending over backward to get it for us. There’s none of that normal, day-to-day bargaining,” Natale added. “Everybody’s kind of chipping in together — like it’s a war.”

LIRR president Phillip Eng has also defended the decision to move ahead with “state of good repair” maintenance projects throughout the railroad system, saying they are essential to keeping trains operating both now and once the pandemic is resolved. 

Eng said in a statement that "even in good times" protecting employees and riders is the railroad's core focus, as the LIRR is vital to Long Island, "now more than ever."

"As we all work together to stay safe amid the COVID-19 global health crisis, we are working side by side with our labor leaders to ensure we're doing all we can to have proper protections in place for our employees," he said. 

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