JERSEY CITY, NJ - A first of its kind lawsuit, putting the blame for a COVID-19 related death on an employer, has been filed by the family of a long-time PATH worker.

Robert Elijah, a power rail mechanic for PATH since 2001, was allegedly exposed to COVID-19 by another worker who, despite PATH protocols was not wearing a mask, while working in “C Yard” in Jersey City on March 15 – according to a suit filed in Hudson County Superior Court in mid-June.

Elijah, known to his friends, as Vernon or Nafiys, was 61 at the time of his death on April 23, just over two weeks after he became increasingly ill, eventually suffering from pneumonia, heart and kidney failure and blood clots.

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In his final days, family members, including his wife of nearly 40 years, three children, and 12 grandchildren, were not able to see him due to hospital restrictions.

While Port Authority officials did not respond to a request for comments on the matter, previous reports have stated that the bi-state agency issued directives early during the pandemic designed to protect workers. These efforts, according to Rick Cotton, the Authority’s executive director, included closing off the front and last cars on PATH trains to create social distance between workers and passengers, and requiring all workers in contact with the public to wear masks and other protective gear.

The suit claims that PATH workers were directed not to wear masks unless a mask was required for a specific job. 

The electrical union to which Elijah was joined, is one of eight whose members have continued in their jobs under contracts that expired in 2011 and 2012. The unions have been at odds with the Port Authority over the use of sick time to deal with COVID-19 quarantine and illness recovery.

The Port Authority, according to union officials, suspended a policy of granting unlimited leave for those employees who contracted COVID-19, and required employees to use sick and vacation time instead.

In April, the MTA in New York set aside $500,000 for families of transit workers who die from COVID-19 – but this offer does not include PATH workers.

Elijah is covered under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act which guarantees compensation for railroad workers who are injured or killed on the job.  But according to Don Palermo, the attorney representing Elijah’s family, the Port Authority failed to take proper precautions that could have prevented his client’s death. 

“Robert Elijah’s death is beyond tragic and his loving family deserves just compensation for their terrible loss, but it’s also part of a larger story of mistreatment of workers by the Port Authority for many years,” said Joseph Dominiczak, President of the PATH Labor Coalition. “We can’t bring Robert back, but the Port Authority can honor his memory by giving his family what they deserve and finally providing a fair contract to the union brothers and sisters Robert loved so much and who have gone without any raise in pay for nearly ten years.”

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