Three months into the coronavirus outbreak, transportation workers say they’re desperate for the Department of Transportation to create enforceable standards to protect them from this and future pandemics.
But the DOT’s response, they say, has been consistent: It is not their job.
Now, though, an increasing number of lawmakers are calling for action.
Members of the House and Senate have introduced a slew of bills aimed at compelling the federal government to create such standards, and in a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Tuesday, witnesses said Congress may need to act in order to give passengers and transportation workers the comfort they need to begin traveling again.
“We shouldn’t have to depend on the goodwill of carriers or involuntary international standards to keep us and our passengers safe in this health crisis,” said Susannah Carr, a United Airlines flight attendant testifying on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “We need a mandatory federal standard to keep everyone safe.”
She said requiring masks on airplanes would be just as reasonable a safety response as banning smoking or requiring seat belt use.
“In the post-pandemic world wearing a mask should be no different,” she said, adding that customers should have a unified expectation of what safety precautions they would need to take regardless of which airline they choose.
Members of the panel said the response would protect workers but also restore confidence in public transportation, which has plummeted in the wake of the pandemic.
“Giving an individual psychological comfort that they’re going to be safe in flying is important,” said Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., who, like Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., argued that the perception of safety would help restore the crippled travel industry.
Since the start of the pandemic, lawmakers have introduced a series of bills aimed at compelling the federal government to take measures to protect transportation workers. They include:
- A bill that would require the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to create an emergency temporary occupational safety or health standard to protect frontline employees including transportation workers from exposure to the coronavirus.
- One that would require the secretary of Transportation to support the priority testing of critical infrastructure workers for the disease.
- One that would both prioritize testing for transportation workers and require passenger and freight transportation companies to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations including mandatory cleaning, disinfecting areas and provisions for personal protective equipment to frontline workers.
Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Tuesday sent a letter to both DOT and the Department of Health and Human Services to urge the agencies to craft rules to protect the flying public, including requiring face masks for travelers, providing personal protective equipment for crew members and setting strong cleaning protocols.
“Although airlines and airports are acting with the best of intentions, air travel is an inherently interstate and international issue that demands stronger leadership from the federal government” they wrote, calling for “enforceable” rules.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also sent a May 11 letter to Vice President Mike Pence, as head of the COVID-19 task force, and a May 18 letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking for guidelines for transportation workers.
“I think they still have not been issued, and I’m not sure they’re going to be issued, which I think is a mistake,” Cantwell said last week during a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Chao so far does not seem willing to draft such guidelines. In a June 1 interview with Politico, she characterized the issue as “labor-management” and argued that industry should take the lead in protecting their workers, arguing that doing so would help restore trust in travel.
"When the federal government gets involved, we tend to be much more heavy-handed,” she said.
Spokesmen for Chao did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
That response irked David Michaels, who headed OSHA from 2009 to 2017. In a June 3 tweet, he wrote, “Just another health & safety agency abdicating its responsibility, telling workers & passengers: ‘you're on your own.’ No reason to think about science or the law. Why should @SecElaineChao be concerned if workers or passengers get sick?”
On Tuesday, Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, said the crisis “demands a national solution.”
“Despite repeated calls, this administration and far too many employers failed to provide a timely or appropriate response to this virus and flat out refused to act,” he said.
In May, the DOT issued 15.5 million cloth facial coverings to the nation's transportation workers. Willis said while they were appreciated, transportation workers really need enforced safety requirements. "Getting masks out to front line workers is great and we're supportive of that," he said, "but if there are not real mandates to make sure employers are doing the right things and protecting workers then we're not doing enough."
Tom Shaw, a Philadelphia bus operator who testified on behalf of the Transportation Workers Union, said that failure has cost lives.
He said five Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority workers in Philadelphia have died of the virus and 160 have been diagnosed with it. Nationally, he said, 122 of his fellow TWU members have succumbed to the virus.
Like Carr, he said he wanted the federal government to require passengers to wear masks.
“People just don’t wear them,” he said. “And there’s no way we can enforce it without causing confrontation and putting ourselves at further risk.”