US airport employees worry for security on Covid frontline

(CNN) – According to a new survey, airport workers in the US are at the forefront of the Covid pandemic, but many feel unnecessarily at risk from inadequate safety equipment or a lack of sick pay.

Of nearly 900 workers at 42 airports across America, 80% said they were at increased risk for Covid-19 because of their work. One in five said they had not received PPE from their employer, airport or airline, Service Employees International, union survey reported.

Concerns were also raised about inadequate training, pressure, lack of leisure time and lack of health care – more than half of those surveyed said they were not entitled to paid sick leave.

Airports and airlines have told CNN that their workers are adequately protected. However, the survey found that many employees who are often contracted to outside companies felt disappointed.

SEIU Executive Vice President Rocío Saenz said the union conducted the survey in September 2020 after hearing reports of health and safety concerns from airport workers across the country.

“We wanted to get a feel for how widespread these health and safety concerns are,” she told CNN. “We also knew that black and brown communities were particularly hard hit by Covid-19 and that airport workers are from those communities. These workers are a critical part of the industry and shouldn’t be excluded from responding to Covid.”

Of the nearly 900 workers surveyed in the report, 37% were Latin American / Hispanic and 32% were Black / African American. 54% of the respondents were immigrants.

Terminal and cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, security guards and wheelchair users were among the respondents who answered the union’s questions.

Joshua Freeman, who works as a cabin cleaner for a company signed by United Airlines at George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas and participated in the survey, told CNN he wasn’t surprised by the report’s results.

“Everyone feels that they have problems,” he says.

Stay safe at work

The workers say they were just concerned about airport work.

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The report highlights concerns about inadequate health and safety from Covid. Only half of the airport employees surveyed said that their employer had provided them with masks.

“We originally had masks and gloves, but I didn’t get them,” says Freeman, who adds that PPE is not “easily accessible” and “easy to tear”.

There aren’t any tests, Freeman says, but he does get his temperature tested every day.

Sadia Bultum, who works as a caretaker and cabin cleaner at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, feels at risk from the number of people she interacts with on a daily basis.

“We are always more than 20 people in the break room. More than eight people in the truck who are together on the flight and working together,” Bultum told CNN. “And you can’t know who might be sick if they don’t have symptoms.”

Bultum works for two different companies. She says the company she hired as a janitor gave her seven washable masks to switch between. The company that employs her to clean Delta aircraft cabins only gave her two disposable masks in the spring.

“It’s been almost a year, that’s all they gave us,” she says.

“Everyone feels that they have problems”

Joshua Freeman, aircraft cabin cleaner

“We have distributed nearly 400,000 fabric covers to port workers and all renters and airport stakeholders who need them,” Perry Cooper, media manager for Seattle-Tacoma Airport, told CNN. “Our FEMA grant has over 2 million left to weather the rest of the situation.”

Cooper added that each and every airport employer is responsible for providing PPE to their employees.

“The airport is an addition or a way to fill in the gaps for these fabric face cover employers,” he said. “These employers also have their protocols and procedures. We have worked in many ways to get the word out as often as possible to let them know we can help.”

Seattle Airport Pandemic (2)

Airport employees say they are concerned about exposure to the virus.

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Yolanda Rodríguez works for an external company as a terminal cleaner at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Quoted directly in the report, she addresses concerns about Covid exposure.

Rodríguez says her company does not tell its employees whether they have been exposed to the virus and that their mask does not provide adequate protection. She would be more comfortable with a disposable cover that she could put over her clothes.

“We don’t know if our clothes carry the virus and we take it home,” she says.

Rodríguez adds that, as is common in contractor roles, she and her employees are not entitled to sick leave.

“We need paid sick days because nobody decided to get sick at work,” she says.

“We don’t know if our clothes carry the virus and we take it home with us.”

Yolanda Rodríguez, airport terminal cleaner

In the SEIU report, 69% of respondents said they had not received training on how to protect themselves and passengers from the virus. 66% said they had not learned how to put on and take off gloves, masks and other PPE safely.

McClatchie, who is also quoted in the new SEIU report, said United Airlines management does not inform them or colleagues when a colleague has signed Covid.

Joshua Freeman, a Houston employee, Rodríguez, Chicago cleaner, and Beltum, Seattle janitor, also said they weren’t informed if a colleague tests positive for Covid.

There is no track and trace app in the US that can be used to notify people if they have been in contact with someone who has since tested positive.

The airline did not respond directly to McClatchie’s statement on Covid exposure, but said: “The health and wellbeing of our 100,000 employees around the world is our top priority. This crisis continues to have a profound and personal impact on all of our hardworking teammates . “

United added that personnel would be supplied with PPE, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and that United-operated facilities at George Bush Intercontinental Airport would be treated with antimicrobial spray every day. According to United, employees undergo a mandatory daily temperature check.

Houston Airport officials said the airport had “implemented dozens of improved security measures in our terminals, including raised hand sanitizing stations and deep cleaning of high-point-of-contact areas.”

It also said, “Everyone must wear a mask at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. This is a city requirement. If someone doesn’t have a mask, our team will give away free masks at the terminal entrances. We encourage everyone.” to come and get a free mask. “

Suggested solutions

Seattle Airport Pandemic (1)

Seattle-Tacoma Airport has installed informational signs and hand sanitizer stations.

David Ryder / Getty Images

According to the SEIU report, the proportion of outsourced workers at airports was 32.52% in August 2020. The union advocates that outworkers not be thrown aside when airlines are rescued.

“It would be terrible if these workers, who have risked everything since March to keep the airports running, were fired. They have to be included in all aviation job saving laws,” said Rocío Saenz of SEIU.

Sadia Beltum, a caretaker and cabin cleaner in Seattle, says security must come first.

“We need rules,” she says. “For example, avoid close employee-to-employee contact. Follow the 6-foot rule. Let employees know if we’re exposed so we can quarantine. Keep the break room clean and our areas clean and tidy disinfected. “

Seattle-Tacoma Airport Perry Cooper tells CNN that “over 8,000 signs” have been installed throughout the airport to inform passengers and employees of social distancing and other recommendations, as well as nearly 300 hand sanitiser stations.

For Freeman, it’s about employers and airports doing everything they can to make a tough job as safe and bearable as possible in an unprecedented situation.

“The work has to be done and I’m ready to do it, but we should be valued, respected, and appropriately compensated for the risk,” says Joshua Freeman.

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