By Stuart Appelbaum and Betsy Plum | July 8, 2020

Even with overnight subway closures for COVID-related cleaning, public transit is New York City’s central nervous system. Nearly one million essential workers take mass transit to jobs in grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals, while millions more will be returning to work – and returning to public transit – as the city reopens.

Throughout this pandemic, New York has relied on essential workers, and they have relied on mass transit. If they can’t get to work, essential sectors face severe worker shortages, and New Yorkers will lose vital access to medicine, food, and health care.

Despite putting their lives on the line, essential workers across the city have had to fight for the most basic of protections in this crisis, including fair wages and proper protective equipment. We can’t pull the rug out on their very ability to even get to work or create an unsafe environment for them on mass transit, as more people begin to move about during the reopening. Safe, frequent, reliable transit service is critical to maintaining New York’s COVID response and mounting a strong recovery. Subways and buses must be able to ramp up to needed operational levels to get the city and its economy moving again. But this return to service is very much in doubt.

The MTA will run out of money to continue operations without more federal support. The city and surrounding region were the epicenter of the pandemic, forcing our economy to pause. Our transit system, uniquely dependent on fares, began losing hundreds of millions of dollars overnight as the city locked down.

The MTA is losing $1 billion each month in fares, tolls, and tax revenue, and additional cleaning is expected to cost $500 million this year due to COVID sanitation measures. Only the federal government can come to the rescue. In its HEROES bill, the House of Representatives voted for the $3.9 billion the MTA requested to maintain core operations through year’s end. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to deliver for transit riders.

While the CARES Act provided $2 trillion in total immediate relief, which included $25 billion in transit aid, the MTA only received a sliver of those funds. Funding was divvied up using archaic formulas that intentionally short-changed big cities like New York.

Similar to the thousands of supermarket and pharmacy workers, transit workers – the so-called “heroes moving heroes” – are themselves essential to the pandemic response, too. They’ve been hit especially hard. Over 120 have died. Thousands were quarantined.

Approximately 30 percent of bus riders are essential workers, compared with 20 percent of subway riders. Essential workers staff the stores we rely on in every single New York neighborhood, both near and far from the subway. Without city buses, many of New York’s transit deserts would be left high and dry, unable to meet residents’ basic needs.

New Yorkers cannot afford transit cuts, which would be devastating to workers’ livelihoods, our public health, and our region’s economic recovery. We cannot thank transit workers for their brave service by laying them off or by raising the fares on New Yorkers. Congress needs to rescue the public infrastructure and honor our essential workers who kept New York moving through the worst of times.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the MTA endured steep drops in revenue without federal aid. Instead, state leaders took an ax to the system, cutting bus service and subway maintenance. Our city limped along as a result, and it’s taken a decade to recover.

We can’t turn the clock back on the progress we’ve made. That’s why New Yorkers are turning again to our leaders in federal government. We need our Senators to stand and fight for transit, and the workers who depend on it. We can’t survive without it.

Stuart Appelbaum is the President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Betsy Plum is the Executive Director of the Riders Alliance.