'We aren't safe': King County bus drivers slam Metro's 'indifference' to safety concerns

KING COUNTY - We continue to hear from essential workers who say they have to risk their job by speaking out in order to fight for their safety.

Numerous employees with King County Metro are now calling for immediate changes they say are necessary to keep them, and public transit riders safe.

Unlike most of us, bus, rail, and streetcar operators still come in contact with hundreds of people every day. Naturally, many of them have concerns about their safety.

Tuesday, an open letter signed by over 50 King County Metro employees was released to the public, calling for King County Council, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Metro General Manager Rob Gannon, and the Metro Ombudsman to take action.

Linda Averill, an employee of King County Metro for over 20 years and a streetcar supervisor, explained how the open letter came to be:

"It is born out of frustration, a sense of urgency and anger. Many of us have raised our concerns to management, at safety committee meetings, emails, we’ve had conversations with upper management. We’ve raised our concerns in every way conceivable way we can. And we’ve been met by metro management with indifference, silence, slow actions when we get any action at all, and dishonesty, both to the work force and the public," she said.

The letter outlines three "emergency measures" they're asking to be immediately implemented.

The first is for "full transparency of and disclosure of Coronavirus in the workplace."

This stems from a bulletin sent out by Metro on March 23rd regarding a COVID-19 positive employee, but the bulletin notes that going forward, this type of notice won't be the norm. It reads in part "unless the employee was symptomatic in the workplace, we are not providing notifications to immediate coworkers."

Bus operator Cheryl Jones says that is not acceptable.

"Not notifying me that I’ve possibly been exposed to Coronavirus doesn’t only jeopardize the health and well being of me and mine, but also the public at large...Metro would have you believe they’re doing everything that they can to help stop the spread of this virus, but the reality is, they’re contributing to the acceleration of it. And that's why this particular demand is very important," she said.

The second demand: daily cleaning, sanitizing, and changing of the filers of every bus in service, as well as providing employees with full PPE. They're also calling for safe practice training for employees cleaning the buses.

"They’re especially bad at night where people who don’t have shelter are being forced to ride the bus because they have nowhere to go anymore. Straps for distancing are not present on all the buses, and no directions have been given for drivers about best practices for ventilation,"  Averill said.

"We’re told supplies are coming...but they don’t show, or they disappear," said Metro custodian Juan Hood III.

"I know it’s tough to get any of the PPE anywhere, in the country, anywhere in the world right now because everybody wants it. But that doesn’t excuse that. Somebody has to figure out a way for our transit agency to protect us and ridership," says Robert Bonina, a Light Rail operator.

The open letter's third demand: hazard pay for employees who are risking their health everyday on the job.

While we did not hear back from King County Council or the office of the County Executive, we received a statement King Count Metro that outlined steps they've taken in response to COVID, including encouraging high-risk employees to stay home, and strengthening their paid-leave policies.

The statement reads in part:

"We minimized driver to passenger interaction by directing riders to board at the rear doors if they are able, eliminating fares, and installing safety straps. We promote social distancing at bases and work sites. We also assembled a cleaning task force dedicated to rapid response and continuous improvement. "

While ridership is down 70%, we heard from riders who tell us they tell us they're still riding the bus because they have no other form of transportation.

Transit employees who spoke out today, risking their jobs, tell us they hope their bosses "do the right thing."