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California transit agencies lobby Gov. Newsom to prioritize front-line worker vaccinations

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Transit agencies across California are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to prioritize their front-line workers during the next round of coronavirus vaccinations, saying such a move would serve to safeguard public health and shore up transportation systems that support the state’s throttled economy.

Leaders of SMART, the Golden Gate Bridge District and Sonoma County’s three bus systems joined more than a dozen other agencies across the Bay Area in making their case to Newsom.

His administration on Wednesday is expected to unveil the next tiers of workers and residents in line for COVID-19 vaccines. A preliminary plan calls for transit employees to be in the second of the next two tiers, after those age 75 and up, public safety and emergency service workers, employees in education and child care, and food and agriculture workers.

Transit agencies have stressed that their operations workers should be part of the next group, aligning with federal public health recommendations. Those workers include drivers, conductors, maintenance and cleaning staff that have daily contact with transit vehicles and the people riding in them.

“Our staff has been there since Day 1, 24/7,” said SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. “They’ve asked us to continue working, which we did with pleasure, and now these guys need to have protection so they can continue doing this. We’re simply reminding our governor that we concur with the federal recommendation.”

Top officials from the coalition of Bay Area agencies signed onto a letter earlier this month that formalized their request. A handful of agencies, including SMART, BART, Los Angeles Metro and Bakersfield’s Golden Empire Transit, renewed their appeal this week.

The requests emphasize that slots should be kept in the next phase of vaccine rollout — after inoculations for health care workers and vulnerable seniors in care homes — for mass transit employees who interact with riders or handle the equipment that gets them from one place to another.

“Transit has demonstrated that it’s providing a lifeline service,” said Michael Pimentel, deputy executive director of the California Transit Association, which advocates for public agencies in the state. “Folks riding public transit themselves are front-line employees or folks without significant means and often without automobiles. And generally they have an impact on the economy, and what happens if we find ourselves in a situation where transit workers en masse come down with COVID-19? Things really do slow down.”

An estimated 35,000 people work in public transit in California, according to the state association. Agency leadership and administrative staff would not be eligible for early vaccination under the requested plan.

SMART maintenance technician Than Myint checks the underside of a passenger train as part of a routine checklist, on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, at the SMART rail yard near Windsor. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
SMART maintenance technician Than Myint checks the underside of a passenger train as part of a routine checklist, on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, at the SMART rail yard near Windsor. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

SMART estimates about 80 of its current 140-member workforce would qualify. The Golden Gate Bridge District, which operates bus, ferry and bridge services, would have about 450 of its more than 800-member employee pool prioritized, according to an agency spokesman. About 90 of Sonoma County Transit’s 138 bus staff would be eligible, as would all but five of Santa Rosa CityBus’s 68 employees, said Rachel Ede, deputy director of the city’s transportation and public works department.

The jockeying comes as the nation’s public transit systems continue to face difficult-to-dire financial prospects while the pandemic rages on, reducing ridership and ticket revenues to a small fraction of what they were at this time last year. The most recent federal stimulus package, with $14 billion in emergency transit aid, will help carry operators another few months. In the Bay Area, about $975 million will be split across the 25 agencies.

But restoring ridership is expected to take longer and hinge on public confidence in the safety of resuming once-routine use of mass transit.

Newsom’s preliminary plan for vaccine rollout placed transit workers in the same tier as people age 65 and up who have disabilities or underlying health issues, those with critical manufacturing jobs and individuals in high-priority industrial, residential and commercial sectors. Older populations of prison inmates and people without stable housing who are susceptible to the coronavirus would also fall into this category.

The final plan due out Wednesday could alter that lineup based upon still-limited supplies of the vaccine. So far, health care providers have administered more than 270,000 doses, according to the California Department of Public Health.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, endorsed the proposed order for the next phase of vaccinations.

“These recommendations do not come lightly. I think some of the most critical job classifications to be able to get the economy back open are embedded in (this) rollout,” McGuire said. “We need to vaccinate our front-line workers responsible for educating our kids, responsible for ensuring safe and reliable public transportation for our workforce, responsible for overseeing emergency management for our state and who are critical to our logistics chain in California.”

Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, who serves as chair of the SMART board, agreed in a Dec. 23 letter he signed on behalf of the North Bay’s passenger rail agency and addressed to Newsom.

“Much like health care professionals, emergency service workers and food and agricultural workers, public transit workers provide an essential service, cannot work from home and must interact with the public in the course of their duties,” he wrote. “Given the clear societal, economic and equity benefits of the services public transit workers provide, we believe it would be a significant mistake for the state to fail to include public transit workers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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