As frontline workers contract COVID-19, we’re not doing enough to protect the traveling public
The same day that President Trump revealed that he and the first lady tested positive for COVID-19 — the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rejected a petition by 33 unions representing frontline transportation workers for an emergency order to require passengers to wear face coverings when they travel on planes, buses, trains and ferries. We later learned the White House also blocked a similar CDC mandate, leaving the agency charged with protecting the health of Americans to issue, just yesterday, watered-down recommendations for mask usage on transportation.
In the midst of a global pandemic, which has killed more than 217,000 Americans and left millions more sick, these decisions by the Trump administration could not be more irresponsible. Face coverings are a simple, proven way to help curb the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. That is why strong mask and personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements are a central component of S. 3884, the Essential Transportation Employee Safety Act and H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, both pieces of legislation that we championed and which transportation labor supports. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has failed to take executive action to protect our transportation workers — instead continuing to turn its back on science.
Requiring passengers on transportation systems to wear masks is the bare minimum this administration could do. As President Trump receives world-class treatment unavailable to working class families, his administration continues to refuse frontline workers this basic protection. It is unconscionable, but regrettably not surprising.
Since COVID-19 first touched American shores, the president and his administration have shown callous disregard for human life and failed to respond to the dangers posed by this pandemic at every step of the way. The DOT’s recent refusal to issue a common-sense federal passenger transportation mask mandate is only a continuation of that failed response. Sadly, it is working people, low-income Americans, and communities of color who will suffer the most because of this reprehensible decision.
Already, tens of thousands of frontline transportation workers — many of who are proud union members — have died or become ill due to COVID-19 exposure. A federal commercial passenger transportation mask mandate would have offered an additional layer of protection not only for these workers, but also for the passengers they serve. In many cases, those passengers are other essential workers just trying to get to their jobs on the frontlines of the pandemic. At the very least, they all deserve this most basic protection.
Transportation workers deserve protection on the job, too. The political discord sown by this administration has made contact with the public more difficult and potentially dangerous for frontline transportation workers. This is borne out in daily and intense interactions between workers and passengers who refuse to wear masks when asked to do so. In some cases, these incidents have escalated to verbal and physical abuse — putting bus drivers, flight attendants, and other transportation workers further in harm’s way. Our nation’s frontline transportation workforce needs the weight of a federally backed measure to protect themselves and others from those who want to disregard science and ignore the rules.
The patchwork state and local response to COVID-19 perpetuated by the Trump administration just isn’t cutting it. While other countries have been able to quell this pandemic, the public health crisis it has created in the United States shows no sign of slowing down. Real, clear federal leadership is needed now more than ever. A federal mask mandate for all modes of commercial and public passenger transportation should have been in place from the start, but the Trump DOT once again chose to prioritize politics over the health and safety of the American people.
In the absence of leadership from the Trump administration, we will continue fighting for the health and safety of frontline workers. We echo the calls on Congress to do what the DOT refused to and pass life-saving legislation to protect workers and the public, like the strong mask and PPE requirements included in the Essential Transportation Employee Safety Act and the Moving Forward Act. The essential employees serving on the frontlines of our transportation system, and the traveling public, deserve no less.
Richard Blumenthal is the senior senator from Connecticut. Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia represents the 4th District of Illinois, and Larry Willis is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD).