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Transport workers give low marks to federal virus protection

“Recommendations are not enough. … We need mandates,” union leader says

As the economic standstill triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic drags into its second month, transportation workers say they are desperate for more personal protection equipment and other safety measures and that the federal government should help.

Roughly 100 workers for local transit systems have died since the pandemic swept across the country, and unions say they want the federal government to provide or require employers to provide protective equipment. They also want federal agencies to require employers to abide by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than simply relying on their employers to provide the gear and voluntarily comply with the guidelines.

On Thursday, United Airlines became the first airline to require its flight attendants to wear masks. 

“Recommendations are not enough,” said Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen, whose union represents 150,000 airline, railroad, transit and service workers. “We need mandates because profit-driven airline executives and bureaucratic transit agencies have already proven they can’t be trusted to do the right thing on their own.”

But the federal government has been reluctant to step in. 

On March 31, for example, Air Line Pilots Association President Joseph DePete wrote an urgent letter to Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson urging him to make mandatory CDC guidelines on protecting workforces from the spread of the coronavirus. 

Dickson responded over two weeks later, saying such a request did not fall under his jurisdiction.

“While the FAA remains steadfast in its focus on safety of flight, we are not a public health agency,” he wrote.

Transit workers, meanwhile, have asked the Federal Transit Administration for money to buy protective equipment, but the FTA has urged them to buy supplies out of the $25 billion allocated to transit agencies as part of a $2 trillion economic assistance measure. Some transit agencies have used that money to stay afloat. 

On Thursday, Reps. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and Sam Graves, R-Mo., urged regional transit agencies to use that money to prioritize the safety of workers.

“While Congress provided you with broad flexibility in using these funds, we encourage you to protect your frontline workers’ safety, wages and benefits and to not postpone your use of this money,” they wrote, saying smaller public transit agencies and private companies should also consider using the money to protect workers. 

DeFazio chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Graves is the ranking Republican on that panel.

Letter to Chao

On Thursday, the Association of Flight Attendants CWA, AFL-CIO sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, calling on the federal government to encourage airline passengers to wear masks and to require them by regulation for employees, crew and passengers “as soon as practicable.” The letter also called for requiring employers to provide proper protective equipment such as gloves and hand-washing stations and restricting air travel to “only that necessary to continue essential services.”

About 250 members of that union have been infected with the virus, wrote International President Sara Nelson. The union represents 50,000 members from 20 airlines. 

On Wednesday, more than 90 transportation groups, including the Amalgamated Transit Union, the Transport Workers Union of America, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Transportation for America, teamed up to write to Vice President Mike Pence and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, urging the federal government to do more to protect workers. The groups said that New York City transit workers have died at three times the combined rate of the city’s police and fire departments. 

Uneven efforts

The groups said local transit agencies have varied wildly in their response, with many agencies failing to provide face covering for their workers. 

“In Philadelphia and Los Angeles, agencies have required all bus operators to use their compartment’s transparent protective barrier to isolate them from the space passengers occupy, but other agencies don’t have buses equipped with these barriers,” they wrote, adding that “given the level of exposure faced by transit workers and the cascading effects of failing to protect them, the federal government must act to supply this equipment.” 

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 200,000 transit workers including bus drivers, subway drivers and ferry boat operators, has launched a grim page on its website listing members killed by the virus. 

Transportation unions have also called for the federal government to make CDC guidance mandatory in order to ensure that companies don’t skimp out on protections. 

The TWU has spent much of the pandemic sending letters to anyone with responsibility, urging them to take action. It got 150 House members and 21 senators to send separate letters asking the FTA to implement mandatory protections.

It sent a letter from scientific and medical professionals to DOT offering technical help to ensure that everyone in the transportation system is wearing a mask.

Union officials wrote the CDC asking it to reverse guidance requiring workers exposed to COVID-19 to continue working until they show symptoms of the virus. And the union sent letters to FAA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration demanding increased protections as well.

The Air Line Pilots Association, meanwhile, argues that the FAA’s assertion that it is not a public health authority runs counter to a February 2006 Federal Register notice when the FAA argued that very thing. 

“The FAA is publishing this notice to inform hospitals and other health care organizations of its status as a ‘public health authority’ under the medical privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996,” the summary of that notice read.

DePete, the pilot association president, was angered enough by Dickson’s reply to blast out a release saying the FAA’s unwillingness to lead “means the aviation professionals who fly medical personnel, equipment, and supplies to the outbreak hotspots are putting themselves at increased — and preventable — health risk.”

More than 250 members of his association have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least three have died.

“The FAA must not delegate its authority to airlines and hope that they do the right thing,” DePete wrote.  

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