Virus exposure risk scares transport workers, threatens supply chain

Dozens of transportation workers have already died from the coronavirus, and protective gear is in short supply

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was losing $2 million every workday as of July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was losing $2 million every workday as of July. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 8, 2020 at 6:00am

Transportation workers say a lack of available protective equipment and confusing, conflicting guidelines from the federal government have put them at increased risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Dozens or more of the workers have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the virus.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, reported 13 of its U.S. members have died since the pandemic began spreading in the United States. And on Monday night, interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg told reporters that 33 agency employees have died from the virus — all from the divisions of subways and buses. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO reports two deaths among its members.

Those figures do not include the transportation workers who have become ill or been forced to quarantine because they were in contact with people who were ill.

Protective gear has been in short supply since the pandemic began spreading in earnest in the United States, leaving most Americans “hunting and pecking for the supplies they need,” according to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

But while the focus justifiably has been on protecting health care workers, transportation workers say they are finding themselves in increasing peril. And in some cases that threat poses a dire risk to supply chains, meaning the delivery of food, essential goods and medical supplies could be at risk.

“We’re putting transportation workers out there in a war with no protective gear, no armor,” said John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “We’re just putting them out there to get sick and die.”

His union this week asked the Federal Transit Administration for masks and other protective gear but has little hope of receiving it.

“We’re not even on the list as first responders,” he said. “We’re not even on the list to receive them.”

He said early CDC guidance was that masks and gloves were unnecessary. As a result, he said, many of his members were unnecessarily exposed to the virus.
'Shut it down'

“I’m at a point where maybe it’s time to shut it down till we get the equipment,” he said. “We didn’t sign up to die in this job.”

On Saturday, the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association, a trade association representing independent truck drivers, sent a letter to President Donald Trump headed “Mayday.”

The letter pleaded for access to protective gear and access to testing.

Drivers, wrote association president and CEO Todd Spencer, “are busting their butts to care for the nation. Their hard work and personal sacrifice should not include their health or even their lives if at all possible.”

Lewie Pugh, a board member for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said drivers are being barred from using restrooms at drop offs, barred from parking their rigs if they seek tests and terrified to go home lest they expose their families to something they picked up on the road.

One Florida driver, Pugh said, worried she was sick and stopped to get tested. But she had no place to park her rig while she waited for the test to come back.

If they decide the risk isn’t worth it, he said, the supply chain is at risk and “America’s in trouble.”

“Truckers are really first responders when it comes to delivering emergency supplies,” he said.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO said her union wants access to a national repository of protective equipment in instances where airlines can’t access such equipment from regular sources.

The responsibility to protect front-line workers, she said, “should be coordinated by the government.”

“This has been an issue for weeks and weeks,” she said. “It’s why people have been saying to Donald Trump to expand the Defense Protection Act and get busy getting these supplies — because no one has them.”

Airlines have tried to fill the gap that the government has left, she said. But some provide the equipment while others just permit workers to bring their own.

“This should be coordinated from the government level,” she said. “Because private industry is not able to do this alone.”

A decade ago, her union fought to receive training from OSHA to keep their workers safe. Today, she said, OSHA is headed by an acting administrator and the CDC’s guidance has often been conflicting, providing guidance to passengers on planes with COVID-positive patients to self-quarantine but offering no such guidance to workers on those flights.

“The biggest action you can take when confronting a crisis, confronting an outbreak like this is to have clear and consistent information for everyone,” she said. “But there has not been one good source for clear information. You can’t make decisions, you can’t tackle a problem if you don’t have all the information.”