First Transit employee concerns prompt COVID-19 safety assessment

Employees of First Transit Inc. have expressed concerns that the company has not done enough to help protect workers and the public against the potential spread of COVID-19. IVP FILE PHOTO

EL CENTRO — Concerns among First Transit Inc. employees regarding the potential spread of COVID-19 among its workforce recently prompted county officials to conduct a workplace safety assessment and issue recommendations.

The concerns came after three employees reportedly tested positive for the virus in recent weeks, said Michael Morales, business representative for Teamsters Local 542, which represents many of the transportation company’s employees.

Although employees had been requesting additional safety measures prior to the employees recently having tested positive, those precautionary measures appeared to have largely went unheeded by First Transit, Morales said.

“It had to come from the county and the union pushing for them to take a little more attention to the situation,” Morales said.

First Transit provides fixed-route transportation services as part of the Imperial Valley Transit program under contract with the Imperial County Transportation Commission. The El Centro-based company did not respond to a request for comment.

The safety assessment took place on July 13 after Morales said he notified the county Public Health Department on July 10 of the employees’ concerns.

The safety assessment resulted in the development of a Worksite-Specific Protection Plan, which was subsequently completed and approved by ICPHD’s Environmental Health Division, the department reported.

Additionally, employees were trained on how to limit the spread of COVID-19, and disinfection protocols, individual control measures and physical distancing guidelines were established to enhance the company’s existing COVID-19 safety measures, ICPHD stated in an email.

The additional measures appear to align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, but not as comprehensive as Morales said he and union members would’ve liked to have seen recommended by the ICPHD and adopted.

The union had also been advocating for countertop barriers to be installed in some of the small office spaces that employees share.

“It wasn’t done as quickly as we’d like to have gotten it done,” he said.

The apparent delay for the installation of the countertop barriers was due to the material not being immediately available when initially requested, said David Aguirre, ICTC associate transportation planner.

Additionally, public health officials’ recent recommendations consisted solely of a few corrective actions, one of which included the countertop barriers and the other which recommended an end to the use of shared condiments in eating areas, Aguirre said.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration announced it awarded ICTC about $10.6 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to support public transit operating, administrative and preventive maintenance expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those monies are being used to help subsidize IV Transit’s operations, which have seen decreases in local ridership of about 75 percent.

“That’s probably about what most (public transit) agencies are seeing,” Aguirre said.

A portion of the grant award is also going toward reimbursing First Transit Inc. for expenses incurred as a result of increased purchases of personal protective equipment, as well as enhanced cleaning and sanitization procedures amid the pandemic.

At the outset of the pandemic, IV Transit had adopted enhanced health and safety measures aimed at minimizing the potential exposure riders and First Transit employees experienced. Those measures included social distancing practices on buses and increased cleaning and sanitization procedures, Aguirre said.

“Rest assured we’re doing as much as we can to try to keep everyone safe,” he said.

To date, the county Environmental Health Services Division has completed 12 worksite-specific assessments, with eight of those being associated cluster investigations, ICPHD reported.  

Environmental Health staff have also conducted 40 COVID-related complaints investigations, as well.

Those complaints have involved allegations of employees working without face coverings, customers without face coverings, employees not wearing gloves, reported COVID-positive employees working, insufficient cleaning, employees working too close together and customers not physical distancing, ICPHD reported.

Staff Writer Julio Morales can be reached at jmorales@ivpressonline.com or 760-337-3415.

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