Working for the city of New York is like reaching the promised land of jobs. Once someone lands a position as an employee under the New York City government, they stay for years and often retire from that position. It looks like gold on the outside, but what is gold doesn’t always glimmer.
One of the most coveted jobs in this city is a position with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). They have many different departments but the faces of the MTA are the bus drivers and train conductors. They are responsible for transporting over 1.6 trillion people a year. Without them, the city that never sleeps would be a snore. While they are near and dear to the heart of the Big Apple, they don’t get treated like they are, specifically the women. After speaking with a few women who have worked with the MTA for years, it has been made clear that the female bus drivers and train conductors are the most disrespected and disregarded.
The Plight of Pregnancy
The women of the MTA feel that they are dealt the most disrespect when pregnant. According to the ladies I have spoken to, once they are pregnant they are neglected, mistreated, and rejected by their employer. After they reach later stages in their pregnancy, they request something called a reasonable accommodation, a position where strenuous labor is not expected or required. The women I spoke to were all denied this option. Like KJ, who worked 4:30 a.m to 12:30 p.m driving a bus throughout her pregnancy. Since she was denied desk duty accommodation, she continued to work so she could continue to stack her sick days to use after she gave birth. This meant driving a bus of disgruntled straphangers with swollen feet, a uniform that didn’t fit, and a full bladder at times. KJ also worked through the COVID-19 pandemic while pregnant. Some days she would drive the bus in tears due to the emotional strain. She also fell down a few flights of stairs at work while pregnant because she was forced to walk too many flights to clock-in due to an out-of-service elevator. By the time she gave birth she didn’t have any sick days, so she was left with two weeks of maternity leave and two weeks of paid leave to bond with her baby. She was denied family medical leave three times.
While Crystal Young was working while pregnant, she was also denied a reasonable accommodation. After being diagnosed with a condition called hemoglobinuria, she had to continue walking the platforms, inhaling toxic materials, and dealing with customers, including the emotionally disturbed, homeless, and disruptive. Her rights to privacy were also violated when her diagnosis and request for an accommodation was being gossiped about by her colleagues. There was a breach of confidentiality. Young even met with someone in the women’s division while pregnant and was told that her pregnancy was not a reasonable accommodation issue.
Once a train operator named Jillian Williams gave birth while on the job and sadly lost her baby, the MTA was exposed over a number of claims of a lack of accommodations for pregnant women. Williams was working in the East New York train yard standing and walking for long hours and operating a “20-pound hand switch that allowed her to move the trains around the yard” when her water broke, the Gothamist reported. Williams didn’t make it to the hospital and gave birth in a shack in the train yard. Once she did get to the hospital, her baby was pronounced dead. After the devastating experience that resulted in the loss of her child, she filed a lawsuit against the MTA.
After the MTA was blasted in the media, train conductor Marie* was swiftly granted her reasonable accommodation during her pregnancy. However, after Williams’ lawsuit, Marie said her accommodation was not renewed. After her primary physician cleared her to work her accommodation, she said the MTA’s doctor refused to clear her to work. So she sat at home with no pay as she awaited the arrival of her baby. Since she wasn’t working, she was unable to pay into her sick leave, something most workers do so they have more than the small time allotted to bond with their newborn. Pregnant women are only allowed two weeks of leave after giving birth. Her calls for a reasonable accommodation continued to go unanswered even though she was willing to work.
Another worker named Darian Keene also filed a lawsuit against the MTA claiming that she was denied the chance to work light duty while pregnant. Her lawsuit stated:
In or about November 2014, Plaintiff was advised by her physician that her work and schedule as a conductor was too physically rigorous for a safe pregnancy, and directed her to work only light-duty assignments. Specifically, her physician advised her to avoid prolonged standing, heavy lifting, and climbing, and indicated that Plaintiff needed frequent bathroom accommodations. 13. On or about December 11, 2014, Plaintiff requested a light duty accommodation as her physician advised. 14. Defendant Transit refused to accommodate Plaintiff, claiming there was no light duty work available. 15. As a result, Plaintiff was forced to begin her maternity leave on or about December 22, 2014, when she was only approximately seven months pregnant, even though she was willing to work and able to work restricted duty.
Pregnancy is stressful enough but becomes more stressful when you are pushed out of work or forced to work under conditions that can negatively affect you and your unborn child’s health. The MTA is comprised of 20 percent female conductors and bus drivers and 92 percent of them are Black women. Black women are already more likely to experience childbirth complications and high birth mortality rates, so working in dangerous conditions can only increase the risks they are already facing. According to the New York State Health Foundation, Black mothers in New York are 2.3 times more likely than white women to experience such complications.
When the workers needed to be advocated for by their union, Local 100, they all said their cries fell on deaf ears. The women I spoke to claimed that once they reached out to their union representatives to ask for assistance as they fought for a reasonable accommodation, they were all led down roads that went nowhere. Calls were unanswered and their problems weren’t solved.
“Transit is doing what the union is allowing them to do,” Young said about Local 100’s lack of action.
What’s to Come
After Williams lost her baby, the MTA found itself under great scrutiny, which forced them to react urgently.
Sarah Feinberg, the Interim President of the Transit Authority, told MadameNoire in a statement that there are now announcer positions that are available for pregnant workers who need reasonable accommodation. Announcers ensure that riders are informed of the latest service-related information.
“Ensuring we can open these dedicated announcer positions is another strong step for women in NYC Transit and will enable pregnant women who have a medical necessity the ability to remain in the workforce for a longer period of time,” the statement reads. “This new policy came out of our pregnancy task force and the work of the women’s committee and builds on our joint efforts providing accommodations to those who need them. I’m proud to reach an agreement with TWU and make this a reality.”
Young, who is a shop steward, isn’t hopeful about this new development and said that it isn’t enough.
“You’re basically telling women that you have to apply and interview for a job that only lasts 90 days,” she says. “Then you have to apply every 30 days. If you have a high-risk pregnancy or issues or complications that could last your whole pregnancy, that 90 days isn’t doing anything.”
She pointed out that this announcer position is only for four women in the subway division, which has one-third of female employees.
“You didn’t do anything for buses, car equipment, stations…the Union is just out of touch with reality.”
Young said there should be 150 positions available for those who become pregnant or disabled while working.
When I spoke to Eric Loegel, the vice president of Rapid Transit Operations and Transport Workers Union Local 100, he also promised that change was near.
Loegel said he has already appointed a liaison, who is a female train conductor, between the pregnant workers who work on the subways and the union to ensure that their needs are met. He added that since his focus is subway workers, he is also working with the bus divisions to ensure female workers are also heard and advocated for.
Loegel, who has been the vice president of Local 100 for two years, admitted that the MTA has a legacy of not taking the issues that pregnant women face on the job seriously. He also acknowledged that employees have a mindset that the union doesn’t care about them. In competing against the Transit Authority’s outdated mentality, Loegel is committed to normalizing women having families while working. Besides appointing a liaison, he said the union is working on renegotiating contracts so that pregnant women are provided with desk duty, a paid leave of 10 weeks, more lactation facilities, maternity uniforms, and upgraded women’s locker rooms and restrooms, which were built almost 100 years ago when women were not employees.
Due to feeling that the MTA and the Local 100 Union was being neglectful of pregnant women, Young decided to take matters into her own hands. She created a packet of resources that pregnant MTA workers need to have handy once they have to apply for reasonable accommodation, medical leave, and family medical leave. The packet includes answers to frequently asked questions, forms, contacts, memorandums, policies that apply to pregnant workers, and detailed information about the Family Medical Leave Act.
Though there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be done regarding the struggles of pregnant MTA workers, efforts are being made, including by Young and Loegel. The latter vowed to endure whatever comes with fighting for what expectant MTA workers deserve.
“Women have been in this department for 40 years,” he says. “Not a lot has been done in that time. I have made it a priority of mine to try and turn that around.”