New MTA unit formed to help dozens of families left behind by COVID-19 deaths

August 4, 2020 Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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When Joseph Fletcher died in April from COVID-19, he left behind a wife, three children and countless questions for them about where to turn next.

Fletcher, a 60-year-old MTA bus maintainer who lived in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, had been the family’s sole breadwinner. His wife, a former city schoolteacher who’s on disability, said her grief and confusion was “extremely overwhelming.”

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“He did everything,” said his widow, Veronica Fletcher, 47. “And to have the one person that did everything no longer there, I didn’t know where to start.”

It’s a plight faced by many of the more than 130 families of MTA workers who have died during the pandemic, as survivors try to find their way through a bureaucratic maze of benefits, insurance, pensions, even how to retrieve a loved one’s belongings from a locker or a desk — all while mourning largely alone.

“There is the shock of losing my husband and not being prepared for it,” Fletcher said. “But I think the biggest complication is having to deal with the grief in isolation and having to navigate all of this.”

To help guide the families, New York City Transit has formed a liaison program that pairs survivors with workers who check in with them regularly to answer questions, to talk them through the MTA’s $500,000 death benefit for workers who died of COVID-19 and to serve as sounding boards.

Union representatives have also helped grieving families through a process that took a heavy toll on subway and bus workers. Of the 131 coronavirus-related deaths the MTA suffered, 127 were in the NYCT’s bus and subway divisions.

For the widow and two sons of station cleaner Thankachan Mathai, 56, who died April 4, that meant finding out he had secured a benefit that could extend the family’s health insurance for three years.

“We had no preparation on what to do,” said his eldest son, Mathews Thankachan, 22. “I never thought about asking my dad about this — these are not things you think to talk about.”

‘It’s Really an Honor’

That’s where the liaisons come in, said Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of New York City Transit.

“When you are grieving and overwhelmed and dealing with all the things you are dealing with when you lose a family member unexpectedly, the last thing you want is to be bogged down in paperwork,” Feinberg told THE CITY.

More than a dozen senior New York City Transit employees have been assigned to contact families of fellow workers who died from the virus.

“It’s not always task-related,” Feinberg said. “Often, it’s just calling to say ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing, I’ve been thinking about you.’”

An MTA employee wipes down seats at World Trade Center station, July 31, 2020. Photo: Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Lucille Songhai, an assistant director of government and community relations for New York City Transit, previously worked alongside elected officials and community leaders on issues such as the Queens bus redesign and subway station cleanliness.

As part of the liaison program, she’s added duties that include being a “part-grief counselor” who’s available to families at all hours.

“I’m sad that I had to meet families in this way, I would have much rather met them in much better circumstances,” she said. “But it’s really an honor for me to do this work.”

Mathai’s eldest son said the connection between his family and liaison Mary Smyth — normally a computer specialist in the Department of Subways at New York City Transit — has provided them with some peace amid their pain.

Mathews Thankachan, his 21-year-old brother, Cyril, and their mother, Sheeba, haven’t met Smyth in person yet.

“Our dad loved us and protected us and took care of us,” said Mathews Thankachan, who graduated last month from Stony Brook University. “I know his heart is very thankful and grateful for the job he had, for the things he provided us with when he was alive and even at this moment.”

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