Nearly 200 airplane cabin cleaners have gone on strike at LaGuardia Airport in New York City after they say their demands for improved health and safety measures to protect them from biohazards and diseases such as Ebola have been denied.
The workers say they have to deal daily with vomit, feces and other dangerous materials, and that they're provided with thin gloves that often break. That has become even more of a concern after Ebola, which is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, has dominated the news.
Several dozen employees walked off the job around 10 p.m. EDT Wednesday and began picketing outside Delta's Terminal D. The strike is expected to last until 10 p.m. EDT Thursday.
The cleaning crews are employed by AirServ, a contractor that provides cleaning services for Delta Airlines planes between flights and overnight at the airport.
"This strike is not just about Ebola. This has been a year of dealing with these issues, even before we were talking about Ebola," said Rob Hill, vice president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union. The heart of the issue, Hill says, is the lack of proper equipment and training for workers; for example, workers attended an Ebola training this week organized by 32BJ, because they felt AirServ was not addressing the issue.
"But in the context of Ebola being out there, and being scary…they're even more concerned than before."
Hill's union says AirServ workers remain nonunion, but a vast majority have asked 32BJ to represent them.
AirServ says it trains all of its cabin cleaners in "long-standing safety procedures," including dealing with blood-borne pathogens, and provides them with protective equipment. "We continually review our policies and procedures for updates and enhancements, and communicate updates to employees, as necessary," the company said in a statement, adding that they had updated protocols for Ebola just last week.
A Delta Airlines spokeswoman said the action was having no impact on the airline's operations, and that no flights had been delayed or canceled as a result. Delta employees at LaGuardia airport had stepped in to clean planes instead, she said.
In a statement, Delta said it values "each and every person who helps to support our operation" and that the company is "confident our contractors are focused on providing a safe, lawful, and appropriate work environment for their employees."
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airport, said in a statement that while the cabin cleaners are not employed by the Port Authority, airlines and contractors they use are "required to meet all applicable OSHA laws" and that their leases with the airport require the companies to comply with all city, state and federal laws.
Hill acknowledges that the chances of a worker coming into contact with Ebola at LaGuardia are slim; according to the CDC, 94% of travelers arriving in the U.S. from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – three of the Ebola-affected countries – go through five U.S. airports. J.F.K. International Airport is one of them, but LaGuardia, a largely domestic hub, is not.
Still, Hill says, there are other major safety issues the workers confront daily.
"These workers ride around in vans with no seat belts, they sit on piles of garbage because there are no seats, they get pricked with hypodermic needles because they don't have the proper gloves," says Rob Hill, vice president of 32BJ SEIU. Hill says workers are demanding better gloves and protective suits, especially to clean airplane bathrooms, where workers complain of regularly being splashed by vomit and feces.
"You shouldn't be doing that in regular clothes," Hill says. "It's potentially life-threatening."