Health and Safety

A Year After Ebola Scare, Airport Workers Still Unprotected

October 8, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

Airport cleaners still fear infectious diseases.

Airport cleaners still fear infectious diseases.

New York, NY – Fears of a widespread Ebola outbreak may have waned since gripping the nation last fall — but low-paid airport employees say that they continue to face potentially dangerous working conditions a full year after that initial scare. 

A New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health report issued last year, found that cabin cleaners and terminal workers at JFK and LaGuardia airports are ill-equipped to tackle the ugly biohazards they routinely face on the job. 

The continued lack of proper protection and cleaning materials ultimately forced more than 200 airport cleaners to walk off the job last October. 

Many of those non-union workers who continue to be subjected to the very same conditions have spent the intervening months filing complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA].

“They give us one rag to clean the bathrooms on all the planes we clean in one shift,” JFK cabin cleaner Mikeryu Samuda told 32BJ SEIU — the union fighting on behalf of unrepresented workers. “The first plane is clean, but that one rag gets dirty as the shift continues. It is not safe for me to have to handle one rag all shift long. We also aren’t given strong or long enough gloves to protect us from the needles, vomit, blood and feces we often find and there are no biohazard boxes to throw hazardous material away.”

Airline subcontractors throughout the country – Air Serv, Ultimate and Roma among them – compete for contracts in a low-bid system that the union argues incentivizes cost-cutting over safety. 

“I said this last year and I will say it again, every time we board a plane, we entrust our health and safety to cabin cleaners,” State Senator Jose Peralta [D-13th District] said in a statement. “Yet the cabin cleaners’ own safety is disregarded by airline contractors who force them to work under hazardous and unsanitary conditions, without the type of gear needed to protect against dangerous and potentially deadly illnesses.”

JetBlue subcontractor Roma reportedly started providing its JFK workers with more gloves after employees filed a series of OSHA complaints.

“I’m grateful to have them now, but it’s ridiculous that we had to work without gloves for so long,” cabin cleaner Cleotildo Polanco,” told 32BJ. “It shows how hard it is to change anything at the airports. We still don’t get the powder we were trained to use for the vomit and blood we have to clean. I wonder how many complaints it will take to get that problem fixed.”

If having to contend with hazardous conditions in the workplace wasn't enough, thousands of other airport workers like Polanco and Samuda find themselves still waiting for the Better Wage and Benefits Plan the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey promised more than a year ago. 

October 7, 2015

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