PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Wearing a mask, Esmine Sharp waits for the Number 2 bus and she isn’t taking any chances. “We’re trying to prevent the spread of the virus,” she said. “We just have to comply with the rules and regulations.”
Dwight Mattingly, who represents Palm Tran operators as a local union president says a total of 8 Palm Tran and Palm Tran Connection operators have already tested positive for COVID-19. “They did not come here to die, they came here to do a job and have a career,” he said.
Mattingly said he believes all operators should receive hazard pay. “Those that work on the frontline, we’ve been there for them and put ourselves at risk,” he said.
Todd Bonlarron is an Assistant County Administrator and negotiating with Mattingly and the union.
“We believe that all of our employees have been heroes in our community,” he said. “We provided compensatory time for our employees who’ve worked during that period of up to 32 hours of time.” We think that’s something fair that the ATU should agree to, we offered that to them.”
Mattingly told Contact 5 that he believes Palm Tran is taking the COVID threat seriously by implementing health checks for drivers, sanitizing buses, distributing PPE, rear entry and exit on buses, and of course requiring masks while onboard.
“The challenge is being able to make sure the passengers keep the masks on and wear them when they board the bus,” Mattingly said.
And when that doesn’t happen, Mattingly said operators are instructed to offer a mask, contact dispatch and continue in service.
“We think we’ve done a number of things to ensure the safety of our passengers and also our drivers,” Bonlarron said.
Numbers given to Contact 5 by Palm Tran show as many as 81 of the public transit system’s 332 drivers missed a day of work last week. According to Palm Tran, that delayed several routes for one day.
A Palm Tran spokesperson said the typical absentee rate is 35 to 45 drivers and said reasons for the absences “are not all due to sick leave, many are worker’s comp, vacation or FMLA”.
“We have a high number out now on a regular basis because they’re afraid to come to work,” Mattingly said. We asked, “afraid they’ll catch coronavirus?” “correct, absolutely,” he said.
“We have seen no trends that indicate that our drivers are feeling unsafe out there driving, in fact, we feel it’s just the opposite,” Bonlarron said.
Mattingly says absences also lead to more hours behind the wheel for other drivers.
A Palm Tran spokesperson told contact 5 three drivers worked more than 72 hours in a week, which they say is allowed during a State of Emergency but is normally prohibited and against Florida Administrative Code.
“If an operator has been behind the wheel too long, they’re going to be fatigued and not alert as they should be,” Mattingly said.
“I’m not aware of any unsafe positions that we put drivers or riders in,” Bonlarron said.
Mattingly and Palm Beach County are scheduled to meet Thursday at the negotiating table to discuss supplemental pay for the drivers.