House Hearing Looks at Coronavirus Impact on Front-Line Transportation Workers

House Hearing Looks at Coronavirus Impact on Front-Line Transportation Workers

June 11, 2020  | Owain James

On Tuesday, June 9, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing titled “On the Front Lines: The Impacts of COVID-19 on Transportation Workers.” Witnesses included:

  • Larry Willis, President, Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO
  • LaMont Byrd, Director of Health and Safety International Brotherhood of Teamsters
  • Susannah Carr, Flight Attendant, United Airlines, on behalf of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA
  • Tom Shaw, Transit Operator, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority on behalf of the Transportation Workers Union
  • Randy Guillot, President, Triple G Express, Inc. and Southeast Motor Freight Inc., and Chairman, American Trucking Associations, on behalf of the American Trucking Associations

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every facet of life in the U.S., but while many jobs have been shifted to work-from-home or ceased altogether, transportation workers are essential to maintaining the basic functions of everyday life and have continued working even though they are particularly vulnerable to contracting and spreading COVID-19. Transportation workers have been on the front lines since the initial scramble of the travel bans and flight restrictions and they have continued to show up every day to get essential workers to their jobs, ensure vital medical and food supplies get where they are needed, and deliver packages to homebound shopper. This hearing focused on how to keep the transportation network running and prepared for a potential economic recovery while protecting the workers that are vital to its functioning.

This is the second COVID-19 related hearing by this committee, following June 5’s hearing in the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. While the previous hearing focused maritime supply chains, this full committee hearing touched on all modes of the transportation network and heavily focused on protecting front-line workers. Witnesses asked the committee to ensure supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation supplies for frontline workers, called for clear federal guidance on sanitation and health on transportation, asked for support for industries to prevent furloughs and layoffs, and of course, expressed support for a bipartisan investment in transportation infrastructure.

Larry Willis of the AFL-CIO opened testimony by highlighting the vital jobs that transportation workers continue to perform in these challenging circumstances. Initial responses to the COVID-19 crisis were, and largely remain, a patchwork of state, local, and private actions. Employers were slow to roll out COVID-19 response plans and there continues to be difficulties in acquiring PPE, ensuring proper sanitation procedures, and enforcing social distancing and mask policies on passengers. In addition, many transportation sectors are experiencing a collapse in demand and workers have been, or are in danger of, being laid off or furloughed. He called on Congress to ensure the provision of high quality PPE for front line workers, clear requirements for cleaning and sanitizing planes, motor vehicles, trains,  boats, and facilities, establish mandatory notification systems for employees who have a coworker test positive for COVID-19, and a mandate for passengers to wear masks on passenger transportation.

LaMont Byrd from the Teamsters pointed to the unique challenges faced by truckers and delivery drivers during the pandemic. Many sectors of the transportation industry are seeing a demand freefall, including freight which directly impacts teamsters, but consumer facing delivery workers are experiencing a surge in demand as online shopping explodes in popularity. Long haul drivers are now also experiencing difficulty in finding places to rest, eat, and use the bathroom as shutdowns continue. Byrd commended efforts in Congress such as the Essential Transportation Employee Safety Act of 2020 which would require employers to follow CDC sanitation guidelines and help get PPE and testing to drivers, and The Every Worker Protection Act (H.R. 6559) which would require OSHA to issue temporary emergency standards for airborne infectious disease.

Susannah Carr, herself a flight attendant, gave a firsthand account of her experience working as the shutdowns commenced and she was furloughed from her job. Carr praised the airlines for imposing mask policies and cleaning procedures, but measures are not universal and vary between carriers and facilities and mask polices are often not followed and are difficult to enforce. What is needed, Carr argued, is clear federal guidance for cleaning, sanitation, and social distancing and enforceable mask requirements similar to those requiring seatbelts and banning smoking on commercial flights. Clear guidance would improve worker and passenger safety and help to restore confidence in the public that flying is safe.

Tom Shaw is also a frontline transportation worker, driving a bus for Philadelphia’s SEPTA; he raised concerns similar to Carr based on personal experience. Shaw talked about his struggle balancing protecting his family and his duty to keep buses running for other essential workers, even under difficult circumstances. Shaw reported that at SEPTA, PPE was difficult to come by and he had to buy his own masks and gloves. Meanwhile, SEPTA has had to return to front door boarding for fare collection, exposing drivers to further risk. Shaw said that social distancing and masks are difficult to enforce and often buses and trains are not cleaned with the required frequency. Federal guidance here could help, again, by implementing clear and universal health and safety standards requiring PPE for workers, masks and social distancing for passengers, and sanitation standards for buses and facilities.

Randy Guillot closed out the testimony portion of the hearing, building on earlier points about challenges in the trucking industry brought up by LaMont Byrd. In addition to similar concerns about PPE access and rest and bathroom facilities, Guillot written and spoken testimony differed with other witnesses in key aspects. Guillot, who, unlike other witnesses represents a trade association and not labor, commended recent flexibility introduced into hours of service (HOS) regulations, called for limitations on employer liability, and pushed back on an emergency temporary standard by OSHA. Byrd, in his written testimony, highlighted the Brotherhood of Teamsters’ concern about weakening HOS regulations. Limiting employer liability has also been a major contention point between business and labor lobbyists on the Hill since Congress began efforts to respond to COVID-19. Guillot closed his testimony with a call for Congress to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which he called the “single most important action” Congress could take.

Questions from the committee members focused on soliciting firsthand experience of the witnesses about the challenges and failures of efforts to ensure transportation safety during COVID-19, lessons learned from the initial response, and actions Congress could take to address the present crisis and mitigate future epidemics. Witnesses again raised the importance of a unified federal response; Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) highlighted his struggle getting the Federal Aviation Administration to study circulation of airborne viruses on commercial planes. Another issue brought up during Rep. Dina Titus’ (D-NV) questioning is the confusion over who would be responsible for conducting testing at airports, if it were ordered. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which has also been on the frontlines, says that virus testing is not part of their mission, but it’s unclear still whose mission it is. Witnesses pointed out that without the guidance and firm backing of federal agencies, response would continue to be piecemeal, enforcement of mask policies would be difficult or impossible, and that passengers would be hesitant to begin travelling again.

Another issue raised was the need to preserve transportation infrastructure to support a potential recovery. If carriers are forced to lay off workers or go bankrupt during the COVID-19 disruption, it will be difficult to ramp up capacity to match demand when the economy eventually bounces back. During Rep. Sam Graves’ (R-MO) question time, Guillot pointed out that his organization expected demand to return to normalcy near the end of 2021 and that his industry might need further assistance. Carr also raised the point in her testimony that there would be mass layoffs if support for air carriers was not extended beyond their current September 30 expiration.

While there was some apparent disagreement among the committee members, many agreed with the witnesses about the need for firm federal action and support for the transportation industry. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) called into question the $25 billion given to transit agencies as part of the CARES Act as it is substantially more than the farebox revenue lost due to COVID-19. Rep. Daniel Lipinski pushed back in his question time, pointing out the loss not only at the farebox but in other revenue streams such as local taxes. Many other committee members seemed to agree with the witnesses call for federal support and guidance as the country begins to look towards reopening and recovery.

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