Read the original story in Spanish at El Diario
Translated and condensed by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell
As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across New York, labor union SEIU-32BJ – representing some 10,000 employees at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports – is warning about an impending emergency: the fact that many of the industry’s workers, in contact with millions of passengers, are uninsured and ill-equipped to prevent transmission.
“We are talking about terminals serving thousands of travelers every day, both from here and from the rest of the world, including the countries on the high-risk list,” said Shirley Aldebol, vice president of the union. “In addition to not having received protective gear, our workers lack financial support to obtain preventive or emergency health services,” she added, referring to the labor force handling baggage, pushing wheelchairs, cleaning critical areas in terminals and airplane cabins and doing security work.
Union representatives believe that, despite containment efforts, these workers are doubly exposed because they’re in contact with passengers who have visited countries that have already declared a health emergency.
The workers, mostly of Latino and Caribbean origin, are independent contractors generally working for companies hired by the airport, and it is not the first time they have had to deal with disease outbreaks.
A JFK worker, who chose to remain anonymous, told El Diario that although bans and controls are in place for people coming from countries “where the disease has spiked, like Italy and China, thousands of other travelers are arriving on connection flights. It is technically impossible to check everyone.”
The employee stressed that while authorities have the “the will and the concern,” to contain the virus, the volume of passengers “makes it impossible to thoroughly examine everyone coming in.”
The first coronavirus case confirmed in New York City was a 39-year-old woman who had flown into JFK from Iran.
Last week, dozens of SEIU 32BJ members working in New York and New Jersey airports joined New York City Council members to ask the State Legislature in Albany to urgently approve a law to offer these workers access to affordable health services.
The New York Healthy Terminal Act, sponsored by State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman, would provide airport workers with a supplement of $4.54 per hour to buy health insurance.
“Our airport workers are not only a part of the fabric of our communities. They have vital responsibilities at our critical infrastructure at [airport facilities]. It is a crime for them not to have health benefits,” said Councilman Donovan Richards.
For his part, Vladimir Clairjeune, a passenger services representative at JFK, said that his co-workers have had difficult decisions to make, even before the coronavirus outbreak emerged.
“I watch my co-workers make impossible choices daily because a lot of us don’t have access to affordable health insurance. Some simply choose not to see a doctor for a health problem because it could be the difference between paying the rent, taking care of family, or getting the care they need,” said Clairjeune.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend people showing symptoms associated with COVID-19 to stay home and see a doctor.
Many airport contractors say that the cost of the health insurance available to them is prohibitive, which makes it effectively inaccessible.