The union for Winnipeg bus drivers says the true risk level of COVID-19 remains unknown as it continues to fight to learn the total number of virus cases among its members.

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The union for Winnipeg bus drivers says the true risk level of COVID-19 remains unknown as it continues to fight to learn the total number of virus cases among its members.

Throughout the pandemic, 15 Winnipeg Transit staff have told the union they tested positive for COVID-19 but the city hasn’t confirmed a total number of cases, which could be higher, said Romeo Ignacio, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.

"(We don’t have) the full picture of the COVID exposure or positivity rate within Winnipeg Transit," said Ignacio.

The union notes the source of some infections wasn’t linked to the workplace and its membership includes drivers, maintenance workers and cleaning staff.

Ignacio said the union filed a grievance in November over the city’s refusal to provide COVID-19 case data for the department. The grievance has since been denied. He said union leaders are deciding whether to seek out arbitration on the matter, though doing so would require a members’ vote.

ATU is concerned it can’t determine the risk level or properly advocate for benefits on its members’ behalf without having access to the information, said James Van Gerwen, ATU 1505’s executive vice-president.

"It hinders my ability to help my members get over such a traumatic event," he said.

In an email, Winnipeg Transit said it responds to COVID-19 cases in a way that addresses risk without violating privacy.

"In keeping with privacy legislation … impacted employees would be notified of any potential risks and associated equipment, worksite, or procedural changes necessary to ensure safety," said Megan Benedictson, a Transit spokesperson.

The statement did not answer questions about the union’s grievance.

Jason Shaw, Winnipeg’s assistant chief of emergency management, said the city must respect privacy rules.

"There are still challenges in terms of … stigma," said Shaw.

The city does release the number of COVID-19 cases across all city departments. Overall, there are now three active cases of COVID-19, 33 employees self-isolating and 168 staff members who’ve tested positive since the start of the pandemic, Shaw said.

Meanwhile, the ATU is also lobbying the province to add Transit drivers as a priority group for vaccination, since its members routinely interact with the public and buses don’t have set capacity limits.

"There’s no set amount of people (allowed) on a bus. It may be 10 people everywhere else but literally it’s up to 70 on a bus. That’s why I think we need the priority vaccination," said Van Gerwen.

Since Jan. 1, the province has reported COVID-19 exposures on Winnipeg Transit buses 32 times, some of which affected more than one route and day. On Saturday, the province listed three different Winnipeg bus routes where possible exposures to the more contagious coronavirus variants may have occurred on March 16 and 17.

Shaw said the city is advocating for police to be added to the province’s vaccine priority list as soon as possible, to ensure it includes all first responders. He said the city is also lobbying for essential Transit workers to get the shot soon after that.

"If you want to keep an economy moving, you need your Transit, and we want to get our drivers vaccinated as soon as possible," he said.

In an email, Manitoba Health said the province is expanding vaccine eligibility as quickly as possible.

"At this time, age and some underlying medical conditions continue to be the greatest risk factors for serious outcomes from COVID-19. And while the supply of vaccine is slowly increasing, we must still make very significant and difficult decisions about how to allocate this life-saving intervention," the statement said.

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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