Gastonia Transit drivers are among the essential workers who cannot work from home. Driving a City bus can be stressful any time, as drivers navigate traffic snarls and inclement weather to meet precise timepoints on their routes. Year-round, Transit serves some of the City’s most vulnerable residents – people without their own means of transportation who need to get to work, to the doctor or to the store.
The City stopped charging a fare to ride buses from March 25 to June 30, helping those with the greatest need and fewest transportation options. But operating public transportation during a public health emergency requires a lot more cleaning and sanitation. “This pandemic has added to the stress of bus drivers coming to work and being asked to do more,” says Community Services Director Vincent Wong. “They are doing extra cleanings of buses and doing it while putting themselves and their loved ones at risk. I am really proud of all the Transit workers coming to work every day and being professional,” Wong says.
Risks and rewards
Most Gastonia Transit drivers are grateful to serve the City’s residents and like interacting with them, but are a bit cautious because of the possible spread of the coronavirus. “I enjoy my job because I enjoy being around people,” says bus driver Charles Littlejohn. “However, times are different. There’s a lot of sickness going on and you have to be careful about interaction.”
Peter Gomes says his job as a bus driver is more hectic now because he has to clean the interior and doorways of his bus after each round trip or every hour, and deep-clean the bus twice daily. He knows it’s possible a passenger might have the virus. “There is a lot of anxiety,” Gomes says. “My wife and family are ‘high risk.’ I want to do my job, but I also worry about bringing something home.”
Bus driver Jody Paulk says she is trying to keep her passengers and herself safe. “You never know who you are picking up and their health,” Paulk says. “It’s a little nerve-wracking because we are putting ourselves at risk, but we know the job we have to do.”
Driver Preston Smith acknowledges the risks but also the rewards, saying, “We deal with a lot of different people from different backgrounds. We try to help and to do our part to serve the community.”
Commitment to public service seems to “drive” all of the City’s bus drivers, especially service to those with few other options. “(The pandemic) has really affected the senior citizens, and it is sad. Many don’t have the family or support to get the supplies they need, so they travel on our buses to get it themselves,” says driver Phyllis Lowery. “This is why we don’t mind having free fare. It can add stress for us, but we know people really need it and we see how we are serving the community.”
Fellow driver Angel Leak hears from grateful passengers every day. “For our riders, we are the way they get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. I am just thankful to be able to help people,” Leak says. Driver Agnes Hill agrees, saying, “It is an honor to serve our community. Some people are not fortunate to have their own transportation and it feels good to serve and help them through this difficult time.”
According to Smith, the fact that City buses kept rolling during the stay at home orders points out the important role of public transit. “People are really starting to understand the important part our job plays in the community,” Smith says of bus drivers.
Wong, whose department includes the Transit Division, says even though bus drivers are front-line employees, their efforts are often overlooked. “Sometimes the job is thankless,” he says. “Especially when you have passengers who may be lonely or down on their luck and really struggling. All the interaction that person may have is with the bus driver.”
Wong says drivers have dutifully showed up during the pandemic, meaning the City has not had to limit bus routes. “Everyone is working and doing their part to keep operations running,” Wong says.
To better protect bus drivers, passengers are now required to enter and exit from the rear of the bus. And employees of Public Works/Equipment Services installed plexiglass partitions to separate drivers from riders. A federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) grant will help cover the costs of fare-free ridership, additional cleaning and the barriers to protect Gastonia Transit drivers.
Schiele employees assist other departments
A number of City employees are temporarily working at locations where there is a greater need. Luis Rivera is a custodian at the Schiele Museum. Before COVID-19, he cleaned the museum’s galleries and many different surfaces each day. When the museum closed to the public in mid-March because of the pandemic, Rivera deep-cleaned the entire facility, including the carpets. After that, he began working at the City’s Bradley Transit Center.
For a couple of months now, Rivera’s been cleaning the bus station’s restrooms and administrative area. Public Works/Building Maintenance Manager Stephen Webber says his division is down one employee, so he welcomes Rivera’s assistance. Webber says his custodial crew continues to clean City buildings and facilities, taking extra steps to disinfect. “They are so unselfish, even in these uncertain times,” Webber says of his custodians. “They work in the trenches and they don’t complain. They come in, work hard and do their jobs.”
Before the pandemic, Cole McLean was working as a landscaper and maintenance technician at the Schiele, assisting with the upkeep of the museum grounds. He has been temporarily reassigned to Public Works.
Help with in-house recycling
Parks and Recreation employee Mark Weaver is now making the rounds of City buildings. He’s temporarily assisting with in-house recycling during the COVID-19 outbreak, collecting recyclables like corrugated cardboard and office paper. Weaver has worked for the City for more than 30 years, most recently at the Skeet and Trap Range and at the Rankin Lake boathouse. Weaver also continues to work for Parks and Recreation by doing some landscaping in the Downtown area.
“Mark is doing a great job with little or no training,” says Public Works/Solid Waste Division Manager DeeDee Gillis. “We’re able to keep our in-house recycling program going with no delays.”
Human Resources Director Judy Smith says these examples illustrate the dedication and flexibility of the City’s workforce. “Many employees are stepping up to take on additional tasks, filling in where there is a need, or going above and beyond,” Smith says. “We are proud of our City employees who are adapting and adjusting to serve our customers and help their coworkers during this unprecedented time.”