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Detroit bus driver to House committee: 'I'm in a potential death trap'

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

A Detroit Department of Transportation bus driver on Thursday testified before a House committee, saying he feels unsafe doing his job and that will only get worse as the state opens the workforce up during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Eric Colts said every passenger that boards his bus is a risk to his health and he believes DDOT isn't providing enough help to alleviate that risk. 

Eric Colts, a Detroit bus driver, spoke with the coronavirus House Committee via live stream about how the pandemic has impacted the Detroit Department of Transportation workers.

"I drive every day not knowing who's at each stop, or who they’ve been in contact with," Colts said during his testimony before the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. "Each time a passenger coughs just a few feet behind me, my hands grip the wheel a bit tighter, as I know that I’m in a potential death trap."

DDOT rejected Colts' assessment.

"I talk with our workforce almost daily and ... they do feel supported," said Hakim Berry, the chief operating officer for the City of Detroit. "I have not had any complaints from my drivers since we put the protocols in place and as we see more people board the buses, we're very well protected."

The House committee, which is a bipartisan panel set to examine the federal response of the pandemic, held the briefing to discuss the impact that coronavirus has had on frontline workers. 

Colts was joined by a registered nurse from Chicago, an EMT from New York City, a custodian from San Francisco and other impacted workers who used their experiences to explain to the seven members of the committee that more needs to be done to protect essential employees. 

According to Colts, there are no barriers on the buses to protect drivers. Passengers are sometimes packed closely on buses with poor air circulation. Drivers are issued one protective mask but were not given any instructions on how to clean and reuse it. 

"In Detroit, passengers are provided with masks if they do not have one, but I drive in the intercity where homeless people are currently boarding the buses for free, and the box of 50 masks on the bus usually disappears quickly," he said. 

DDOT received a $64.3 million grant to the Detroit Department of Transportation to help pay for transit operations, increased bus cleaning and providing personal protective equipment like masks and gloves to employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite Colts' concerns, the transportation department says it has made efforts to assist bus drivers on their routes during the pandemic.

On March 17, Mayor Mike Duggan and representatives from three unions outlined a series of solutions that included more thorough and frequent cleaning of buses and available restrooms for drivers.

Other changes include the use of rear doors for passenger entry and exit; an eight feet restricted area directly behind each driver; gloves and wipes for drivers, with masks as available on request; and 20 additional staffers to help clean buses more frequently and thoroughly.

The agency says it serves an average of 85,000 riders daily with 48 fixed bus routes, 12 24-hour routes and six express routes in the city of Detroit and neighboring communities, including Dearborn, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Harper Woods, Livonia, Redford Township, River Rouge and Southfield.

Every driver is tested multiple times using the 15-minute rapid test kits and only 4% of drivers have tested positive for the virus, Berry said Thursday. 

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that they're safe and not in contact with any potential patients. Those low positive rates means that we're ahead of it," Berry said. 

On March 21, Jason Hargrove, a 50-year-old DDOT driver, posted a Facebook live video complaining about a woman who boarded his bus and coughed several times without covering her mouth. 

Eleven days later, Hargrove died from COVID-19

"Jason loved his job and was proud to do it. He was always concerned about his passengers," said Colts, who called Hargrove his best friend. "We all miss him terribly."

Roughly one in four workers living in Detroit are deemed "essential" and are working on the front lines, an analysis of U.S Census Bureau data has found. According to an Associated Press analysis of census data in the country’s 100 largest cities, essential employees work in six industries: grocery, public transit, delivery and warehouse, cleaning services, health care and social services.

"Passengers are at times packed together like sardines — nowhere near the CDC guidelines," said Colts, "and it’s just going to get worse as the state starts to reopen."

A worker cleans a bus at the Detroit Department of Transportation's Gilbert Terminal, in Detroit, March 17, 2020.

During the hearing with the House committee, members asked the front-line workers a series of questions with references to the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by the full House that would focus on hazard pay, unemployment benefits and other provisions. 

"I stand with you and will do everything that I can as a member of Congress to be an advocate for increased pay," said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California. "And if you have to walk the picket lines, I'm going to be there with you."