MTA Pulls $500K COVID Death Benefit from Unvaccinated Workers

21 Sep, 2021 Liz Carey


New York, NY ( – New York City transit workers who don’t get the COVID-19 vaccine won’t get the $500,000 death benefit if they die from the disease, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said last week. 

Just after Labor Day, the MTA opted to extend through the end of this year a benefit that would entitle workers who die of COVID-19 to a $500,000 lump sum payment, as well as three years of health insurance for their survivors. MTA originally introduced the benefit last April after 59 MTA workers died of COVID-19. 

Working with the New York City Transit workers union, the MTA agreed to provide any transit worker who was on active duty on or after Feb. 20 with the lump sum payment that is 10 times what is normally paid to survivors. 

But MTA’s Chief People Officer, Paul Fama, told workers in a notice last week that those who opt not to get the vaccine could leave their survivors without the benefit, unless they had valid and documented exceptions to vaccination. 

“It’s more important than ever to consider how getting vaccinated not only protects you, but also your family,” Fama wrote in the memo, according to The City, a New York newspaper. “We highly encourage all our team members to get vaccinated – it’s safe, effective and one of the surest things we can all do to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19.” 

The agency has lost a total of 171 of its 68,200 employees to the disease, an agency spokesperson said. 

The rules change comes after a push by President Joe Biden to get more workers vaccinated. On Sept. 8, Biden announced sweeping new rules that would mandate all employers with more than 100 workers would have to require their employees to get vaccinated or get tested on a weekly basis. The new mandate would affect about 80 million Americans. Additionally, Biden said that roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding will also have to be vaccinated.

The administration would also require federal employees in the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government to be vaccinated with no option for weekly testing. 

At the MTA, about 70 percent of the workforce has received at least one dose of the vaccine, the transit agency said. However, vaccination rates vary across the agency’s divisions. Workers with MTA Construction & Development have a nearly 89 percent vaccination rate while those in the MTA Bridges and Tunnels, Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit divisions have below a 60 percent vaccination rate. Workers in the subway and bus divisions fall to about 55 percent, according to The City. 

Earlier this year, in April, then Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the death benefit exempt from state taxes. 

“While most of us stayed home during the darkest days of the pandemic, the members of the MTA workforce risked their own health and came to work, so that essential workers from across the New York City area could reach their destinations and perform their vital duties," Cuomo said in a statement. "These heroic men and women risked their own wellbeing along with that of their families', and those who lost their lives to COVID are going to be remembered and honored for their sacrifice. In order to provide some additional relief for the families of these heroes, the death benefits these families have received through the MTA's COVID family death benefit program will be exempt from New York State income taxes." 

Between April 2020 and April 2021, the state paid out and estimated $62 million in direct payments to the surviving families of MTA employees who died from COVID-19. 

In August, Cuomo announced the state would make vaccines mandatory for state workers, including MTA and Port Authority employees. Those state workers who did not get vaccinated faced weekly testing starting after Labor Day. MTA administers COVID testing at 120 sites throughout the transit system. 

The Labor Day deadline was extended in early September. 

“While the testing sites will be operational on Sept. 7, as we’ve always planned, MTA has decided to defer compliance standards at this time,” Chief Safety Officer Pat Warren wrote in an email over the weekend to MTA employees. “Testing, while strongly encouraged, will remain voluntary for the time being.” 

Janno Lieber, MTA CEO and Chairperson, said the agency is working to get its entire workforce vaccinated. The agency has recently begun offering workers two hours of pay per shot for a total of four hours, if they get the shot. 

“We are incentivizing people to get vaccinated, so we’ve made a lot of progress,” Lieber said. “It’s just like the rest of society – there are people who have questions and, for whatever reason, have elected not to get vaccinated.”


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    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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