Airport workers: We need better protection from coronavirus at Newark, JFK and La Guardia

When Yvette Stephens arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport on Tuesday morning to begin her shift as a security guard, she was carrying a dozen or so respiratory masks to share with her co-workers who are concerned that a passenger with coronavirus could be arriving at their terminal. 

a group of people standing in front of a store: As coronavirus COVID-19 cases increase in countries such as South Korea, Iran and Italy, the risk of transmission from travelers not just from China grows.

Stephens bought the masks at a nearby Home Depot because she said no one at the airport has handed them out to the thousands of workers who deal directly with passengers and their belongings.

“We are on the front lines of this, and we’re not equipped,” Stephens said. “I bring my own mask and my own gloves to work.” 

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As the coronavirus COVID-19 has spread rapidly from China through Asia into Europe, the Middle East and North America, the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 10,000 workers at Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia airports says its members have not been properly trained and outfitted to reduce the risk of transmission.

a group of people standing around a plane: What would you do if you had to quarantine your plane mid-air because someone has coronavirus?  If a person becomes ill inflight, crews are trained to provide first aid. Additionally, many airlines have a medical specialist available via phone or radio patch.   If the passenger is ill and needs more medical attention, the captain can decide to divert.   If there is a question about a contagious disease, then the medical professionals at the diversion airport would have to determine if a quarantine were necessary.

This includes workers who handle baggage, push people in wheelchairs or clean the terminals and airplanes.

“You have cabin cleaners who come into contact with blood, vomit, mucus, feces, all types of bodily fluids, and they have no more training today than they did before the outbreak,” said Kevin Brown, the New Jersey state director of 32BJ SEIU. “We’ve requested this and we’ve gotten nowhere.”

a fighter jet sitting on top of a parking lot: Airport workers are growing concerned about the spread of coronavirus COVID-19, saying they haven't been trained ore equipped to deal with the disease.

Many airlines and their subcontractors who employ most of the SEIU workers could not be reached for comment Monday.

Rachael Rivas, a spokeswoman for United Airlines, the largest carrier at Newark, said the company is following all the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations in response to coronavirus concerns, but did not specify what those were. 

Alana Calmi, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, also said the agency is following CDC guidelines and would not comment further.

The cluster of airports that serve the New York metropolitan area are among the busiest in the world. A record 140.5 million passengers traveled through the Port Authority’s four commercial airports, which also include Stewart International Airport in Orange County, New York.

Newark and Kennedy are two of 11 airports in the U.S. that are accepting passengers who have been to China in the past 14 days and are given enhanced health screenings for symptoms such as fever, cough and trouble breathing.

Some passengers face mandatory 14-day quarantine in an aggressive effort to slow the spread of a virus that officials fear could become a pandemic. As of Monday evening, there were 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, according to the CDC.

Foreign nationals who have visited China in the past 14 days may not enter the U.S. Coronavirus cases are rapidly increasing in other countries such as South Korea, Iran and Italy, raising the risk from passengers who are not traveling just from China.

There is no specific treatment for COVID-19 and no vaccine at this time. The CDC recommends standard preventive health measures, including frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying away from sick people. It does not recommend the use of face masks by the public.

Stephens said customs and Transportation Security Administration officers have received masks, but not the 2,343 SEIU workers at Newark Airport. 

“We deal with people from every corner of the world,” she said. “The thing is: We don’t know a lot about [coronavirus]. We’re just left to figure out stuff on our own, and we deal with a lot of international flights.”

Many airport workers are paid a minimum wage of $15.60 an hour and forgo medical coverage because it is too expensive, Brown said. 

“We’re talking 25% of people’s salary,” Brown said. “You can’t afford it, between premium payments and co-pays of $5,000 to $6,000 a year.”

Newark workers aren’t the only ones saying they’re ill prepared.

In Australia, airport workers have threatened to strike unless they are given coronavirus training.

This article contains material from The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey: Airport workers: We need better protection from coronavirus at Newark, JFK and La Guardia

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