Representatives from the workers' union for Capital Area Transit System employees are demanding East Baton Rouge Parish's transit agency provide them with better personal protective equipment if they are expected to continue providing bus service during the coronavirus pandemic. 

And the union has informed CATS' employees they have the right to refuse any job assignments if they feel their health is in danger due to what the union says are the inadequate masks and disinfectant solutions the agency is issuing to its drivers. 

"The masks they've given us are paper or cloth; we want N95 respirator masks," said Yvette Rhines, president of Baton Rouge chapter for the Amalgamated Transit Union. 

And Rhines says the disinfectant and hand sanitizing solutions CATS hands out comes in clear bottles so they have no idea what's in it or if the products are strong enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

"When the operators and employees use it, it's watered down," Rhines said. "They're telling us they ordered it and they're mixing the solution together. So what they're giving may not even be consistent since different people are mixing it every time we run out."

CATS Chief Executive Officer Bill Deville on Monday refused to comment in detail on any personnel matters or issues the union brought up in the prepared statement it released on Friday. 

"We are providing the best possible PPE and equipment to our operators," was all DeVille would say.

The union released its statement the same week New Orleans' Regional Transit Authority lost three of its employees to the virus and it was reported that one in eight of its workforce had fallen ill.  

Union officials said at least four CATS employees contracted the virus.

Rhines said employees were told they wouldn't be disciplined if they couldn't work for any reason during the pandemic. She claims one employee has been fired and two others put on leave without any explanation to the union regarding why. 

"They're not communicating with us anymore since we reached out to the media," she said. 

After state and local stay-at-home orders were enacted to mitigate the spread of the virus, CATS has continued its normal operations but with modified procedures and routes. The agency has been deemed an essential service during the pandemic. 

On March 18, CATS announced the implementation of a social distancing policy on its vehicles which consists of roping/taping off every other seat to limit occupancy. 

CATS spokeswoman Amie McNaylor said the agency waived all rider fees and the entry and exit point for passengers was moved to the rear of all vehicles to limit operators' contact with the public. 

In her prepared statement, Rhines said CATS employees have no issue providing service to many of the essential workers in the healthcare industry and in grocery and retail businesses who are needed right now, but the union still believes the transportation agency has a duty to ensure its employees are being protected.

The union also pointed out that the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provides $17.6 million in emergency stimulus money CATS could use to purchase better masks, gloves and other PPE supplies for its employees. 

The stimulus bill also allows for hazard pay which Rhines said employees aren't receiving.

"We don’t understand why CATS isn’t using these funds to do this," Rhines said Monday. "They aren't being transparent with us about anything even though Bill Deville said he would be. We need resolutions, and we're prepared to go to the CATS board of directors if we have to." 

Other safety measures the union asked to be implemented include requiring all passengers to wear masks to board transit vehicles, limiting service to essential workers and those seeking medical care, on-site COVID-19 testing for employees, and a special leave policy for employees showing any symptoms of the virus.    


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com