Last week HandyDART suspended fare payments to protect operators and promote physical distancing. (BLACK PRESS files)

Last week HandyDART suspended fare payments to protect operators and promote physical distancing. (BLACK PRESS files)

Maple Ridge HandyDART driver worried about safety with COVID-19

Union says operators need more personal protective equipment

The union representing HandyDART operators say they need more personal protective equipment to do their jobs as fears mount about the spread of COVID-19.

Operators are not able to social distance from clients who need physical assistance to board and depart vehicles, said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1724 President Mark Beeching.

So the union has been working with their employer, First Transit, in advocating that HandyDART be prioritized for personal protective equipment as an integral part of health care in the province.

Jim Formosa, a HandyDART driver for four years, is concerned about the lack of protective equipment for drivers, especially enough gloves and hand sanitizer.

“I can see them running out and then what,” he asked.

READ MORE: TransLink suspends HandyDART fare payments in all communities including Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows

But, the Maple Ridge resident said, management is doing what they can.

Twice in the last two weeks his manager met him and his colleagues on the job site to see how they were doing and gave them each a package with around 20 pairs of gloves and a small hand sanitizer bottle that they can refill from a four litre jug in the office. His manager also answered any concerns that they had.

However, they didn’t receive any masks.

Formosa is also concerned about whether buses are getting cleaned properly.

“Drivers have concerns if the buses are getting cleaned properly,” he said, especially the driver’s areas like the steering wheel, the seat, the arm rest and the doors.

Call numbers are down, said Formosa, but he is still driving people with special needs to their doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping and to work.

However, instead of driving six clients at once, Formosa said, they are only driving a maximum of two people to a bus in order to maintain proper distancing between them. On bigger buses operators are allowed to drive up to three people, he said.

But, because they are a door-to-door service, drivers have to help the people on and off the bus using the front doors.

READ MORE: B.C. care homes well equipped to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks

“That’s a concern,” said Formosa.

Formosa has his own personal mask but he has yet to wear it. But he does wear his gloves.

“I haven’t seen any HandyDART drivers wearing a mask,” he said.

First Transit operates HandyDART services in Metro Vancouver under contract for TransLink, a provincially mandated transit agency overseen by Parliamentary Secretary Bowin Ma and the TransLink Mayors’ Council.

Unlike fixed route buses, HandyDART operators cannot socially distance themselves from their clients – who require physical assistance to get on and off their vehicles, said Beeching in the union press release.

“These operators are at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 as they serve hospitals and care homes daily. HandyDART operators need protective equipment to keep themselves and their vulnerable clients safe,” he said, adding that First Transit has been struggling to get these personal protective supplies.

Local 1724 has contacted TransLink and the provincial government to insist that HandyDART be prioritized in the supply of personal protective equipment.

TransLink spokesperson Jill Drews acknowleged that HandyDART, as part of the public transportation network, is an essential service and operators are in close contact with customers several times during an average trip.

“TransLink and First Transit are working with the provincial government to source PPE for HandyDART operators,” she said.

ATU is also advocating for legislated policy changes for keeping this service running and workers safe, including, but not limited to: increased health and safety measures for HandyDART operators and customers, including gloves, masks, sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and all PPE needed; pandemic leave for anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19, exposure to anyone with COVID-19, or with family or childcare obligations resulting from shutdowns; retaining employees and maintaining wages and benefits during service curtailment.

“HandyDART Para Transit is fundamental to seniors and disabled people. It is absolutely critical that clients and workers be protected,” noted Beeching.

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