First T&I Hearing of 2021 Looks at COVID and Transportation Workers

First T&I Hearing of 2021 Looks at COVID and Transportation Workers

February 05, 2021  | Hayley Burton

Among the various ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the nation is the health and safety of transportation workers and passengers, as well as the financial repercussions for workers and passengers, and the transportation industry at large. Transportation workers include movers of both people and goods, both of whom are at high-risk with close quarters, frequent trips, and high numbers of daily interactions. A hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held yesterday examined these issues from multiple perspectives.

To consider safety measures moving forward, the Committee heard testimonies from six experts:

  • Professor David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board (written testimony here).
  • Sara Nelson, a United Airlines flight attendant, union leader, and international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (written testimony here).
  • Lewie Pugh, former trucker, and Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) Executive Vice President (written testimony here).
  • Ismael Rivera, bus operator and member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1956, Orlando, FL (written testimony here).
  • Professor William P. Bahnfleth, Professor of Architectural Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University, and Chair of ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force (written testimony here).
  • Joe Buscaino, Councilman and past President, Los Angeles City Council, representing the National League of Cities (written testimony here).

Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and the majority of panelists opened with similar remarks with praise for President Biden’s recent executive order on mask-wearing in transportation (and the CDC implementing order) and voicing the need for increased safety measures. Variances in the testimonies included Pugh’s remarks which came with criticism for Congress he deemed as harmful legislation such as preventing food options for truckers and requiring burdensome and unnecessary insurances. Rivera’s testimony highlighted safety concerns for transportation workers, specifically bus workers, in regards to enforcing compliance of mask mandates from defiant riders. He stated, “I’m a bus driver, not a police officer.” Buscaino’s testimony brought port workers into the discussion, calling for them to be classified as essential transportation workers rather than contract workers. “Our dock workers may be essential, but shouldn’t be sacrificial,” he said, bringing up the importance of including them in future safety measures.

The hearing involved a lengthy discussion covering a wide variety of topics, but the top priorities of the day were vaccinations, masks, and the aviation Payroll Support Program. Other issues included testing requirements, safe parking and food options for truck drivers, safety on buses for riders and workers, furlough issues, air quality and ventilation, cost issues and the economy at large.

Vaccinations

Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL) asked panelists if they agree that the fundamental solution is getting as many people vaccinated as we can as quickly as we can. All panelists agreed. In his opening remarks and throughout the discussion, Busciano repeatedly pushed for a federal relief package for local municipalities to fund and deploy vaccinations urgently. Michaels suggested a special federal program to address logistically issues of vaccinating transportation workers that are not in one place for very long.

Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), Andres Cano (D-AZ), Michael Guest (R-MS), Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL) and Donald Payne (D-NJ) all emphasized the importance of prioritizing vaccine distribution to transportation workers.

Masks

It would not be a COVID discussion without the mention of masks and enforcement. DeFazio’s opening remarks relayed that transportation workers have been harassed and abused by passengers refusing to wear a mask when workers tried to enforce the rules that keep them safe. With the new Biden administration comes a new (theoretical) maximum fine of $35,000 and 1 year imprisonment for noncompliance with the CDC order, which panelists welcomed.

Included in the new rule are standards for what constitutes a proper mask and when exactly the mask is required (i.e. before you walk into an airport, not just at the desk). Repeatedly, mask wearing was brought up as one of the layers of solutions essential to keeping workers and passengers safe, alongside tactics like vaccinations and ventilation. Bahnfleth noted that because aircrafts have high circulation and ventilation, what is left is contact and fomite (contaminated surface) transmission, which is most effectively approached through masks and sterilization.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Garcia asked panelists what Congress can do to provide safer enforcement of mask and social distancing mandates, in reaction to the physical altercations that have taken place against transportation workers. Panelists referenced consistent messaging and signage from the federal level, as well as increased support and instruction for law enforcement. Panelists supported Wilson’s proposal for legislation strengthening OSHA’s role in protecting transportation workers from hazards like COVID-19 or workplace violence.

Payroll Support Program (PSP)

Rep. Kaialiʻi Kahele (D-HI), made his remarks in the context of the 801 Hawaiian Airlines employees who received furlough notices just a few days ago and referenced the 13,000 American Airlines employees set to receive similar notices in the coming days. Looking back, the result of not extending the CARES Act’s PSP past the first of October last year resulted in 32,000 furloughed airline employees. In December, Congress again provided PSP funding, which is set to expire on March 31st. At the encouragement of Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Nelson spoke to the success of the PSP, summarizing its workers-first approach and saved jobs. DeFazio, Kahele, Fitzpatrick and Rep. Ted Davis (R-NC) called for extending the PSP. Later this month, the T&I Committee will have to decide how much additional funding to provide for PSP in the next stimulus bill, with the industry ask being around $15 billion. Kahele asked panelists to speak to the ramifications of not providing the $15 billion. Nelson insisted that neglecting funding for the PSP would cost Congress more dollars through unemployment benefit payments and lost contributions to tax revenue and Social Security.

Additional Discussion

Chairman DeFazio focused on the potential impact of following the CDC recommendation to require COVID-19 testing in order to travel by plane. Nelson’s said it would devastate the industry, adding that requiring testing would negatively impact airline workers through layoffs and furloughs rather than working on effective measures to stop the spread. Michaels said tests could provide false security and lax standards known to help stop the spread and opposed mandatory testing. Accuracy rates, testing capacity and logistical capability were also noted as concerns. Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) and Davis also opposed the CDC’s suggestion.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) questioned Nelson on priorities for a future National Aviation Preparedness Plan moving forward, a bill Larsen expects to introduce today. Nelson encouraged organizing a supply chain for the proper PPE, and ensuring immediate coordination and information dissemination about outbreaks and resources. Nelson also referenced varying definitions across the industry of “exposure” and that workers need to be quarantined and supported with pay during that time when meeting the definition of exposure by the CDC.

No matter the mode, representatives and panelists agreed on the key role of ventilation in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Cano made a suggestion to ask bus manufacturers to implement ventilation systems into new buses moving forward. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) asked panelists if they support legislation on sensors and filters regulating ventilation and toxins in aircrafts and asked for recommendations for standards moving forward, which panelists agreed to discussing further.

Specific to trucking issues, Rep. Mike Bost (R-IL) is introducing a bill to address the need for truckers to be able to park trucks and rest both for their health and safety and to comply with existing federal regulations mandating breaks, which panelist Pugh supported. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) noted Pugh’s frustration with Congress’ wanting to raise minimum trucking insurance standards. Pugh explained that 99.4% of all trucking accidents are covered by the current standards, and claimed motive for the increase as more money in the pockets of lawyers handling the cases. Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA) asked Pugh about the recommendation to temporarily suspend the federal diesel tax. Pugh, speaking on behalf of OOIDA recognized the need for the fuel tax in times outside of the pandemic, but said that suspending the tax during the pandemic would lessen the burden on trucking companies.

Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) advocated for his own legislation, the Health Smart Air Travel Act to improve the application of public health risk mitigation measures related to the public health risks presented by COVID-19 in airports and on passenger aircraft.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) urged Congress to think about their responsibility moving forward how to bring back the confidence of the public to start using public transportation again once it is safer.

An archived recording of the hearing can be found here.

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