MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Lakeisha Snipes was so worried about being infected with the coronavirus that she decided to take a leave from her job as a public bus driver in March.
The mother of two told her employer she had underlying health conditions ― including high-blood pressure ― that put her at risk of dying of COVID-19. Snipes was safe at home until May when her employer asked her to return to work.
Kim Cox, her cousin, said Snipes told her “they bullied her into coming back to work.”
Snipes’ worst fear came true. According to Miami-Dade Transit, her last drive was on June 25 and she reported she had tested positive for COVID-19 on June 29. Snipes died on Wednesday. She was 42.
“It’s a tragedy for our family,” Cox said.
Cox said COVID-19 killed Snipes. It’s unclear how Snipes was infected. Miami-Dade County has had a shortage of contact tracers, the people who investigate outbreaks in the community.
Although she was taking an unprecedented risk, Snipes did not have first-responder discounts, hazard pay or a death benefit for her kids. Cox said Snipes told her she felt like Miami-Dade County leaders weren’t doing enough to protect her from COVID-19.
“She had been complaining for a long time ... that the bus system just doesn’t care about the employees,” Cox said.
There are about 430,000 transit workers around the country. They are keeping public transportation systems running, but their employers’ lack of investment in protections is causing them to pay the heavy price, according to The Transport Workers Union of America.
Miami-Dade County increased the regularity of cleanings and made boarding changes so passengers are further away from the driver. Officials also required passengers to wear face masks and started to provide drivers with face masks and hand sanitizer.
Cox said Snipes wasn’t appeased by the efforts. The TWU believes more needs to be done. Some drivers want Miami-Dade to install more clear shielding to help drivers isolate from passengers.
“She was very worried about COVID-19 ... From day one, everybody knows that if you have underlying conditions, you have weight problems, you stay out of harm’s way,” Cox said.
Luis Espinoza, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation and Public Works, told Local 10 News in a statement that Snipes “had leave time available as well as other options, such as Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).”
“Our department continues to give consideration to the needs of our employees, especially those who may be at higher risk for severe illnesses,” he said.
African-American COVID-19 patients are dying at higher rates “in part because of black people’s heavier reliance on public transportation for commuting,” two new studies by economists suggest, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The NAACP has advocated for bus drivers around the country. In Miami-Dade County, more than 50% of transit workers are African American. Before the Black Lives Matter movement reignited, the union alleged in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Miami-Dade was discriminating against transit workers.
“The county’s firefighters, police officers and other frontline workers have earned and deserve the protections the Employer is giving them throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” the complainant wrote. “The transit employee workgroup is deserving of the same protections.”
Jeffery Mitchell is the president of the TWU’s Local 291, which represents about 2,800 Miami-Dade County transportation employees. He filed another lawsuit earlier this year in Miami-Dade Circuit Court against Miami-Dade County Transportation & Public Works Director Alice Bravo.
Mitchell rented moving billboards to promote the TWU’s “Ride Not Die” campaign to raise awareness and pressure Bravo. He fears more transit workers will die and spread the disease as Miami-Dade’s cases continue to increase. On Thursday, he released a statement.
“Currently we have dozens of transportation workers who have tested positive for the virus and likely more that have not yet been identified,” Mitchell said.
Tips for transit workers
For transit station workers, potential sources of exposure include having close contact with a transit passenger with COVID-19, by touching surfaces contaminated with coronavirus, or by touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
- Limit close contact with others by maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet, when possible.
- Avoid touching surfaces often touched by transit passengers.
- Practice routine cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, following the directions on the cleaning product’s label.
- Use gloves if required to touch surfaces contaminated by body fluids.
- Proper hand hygiene is an important infection control measure. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
- Key times to clean hands in general include:
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- After using the toilet
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- Additional times to clean hands on the job include:
- Before and after work shifts
- Before and after work breaks
- After touching frequently touched surfaces
- After putting on, touching, or removing cloth face coverings
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.