Union airport workers at Reagan National demand coronavirus protection

Dozens of union airport workers formed a caravan around Reagan National Airport on Tuesday, circling the transit hub and honking their horns to demand full COVID-19 protection.

The dispute is between members of 32BJ SEIU and Spanish-owned contractor Eulen America.

“When it comes to PPE (personal protection equipment), these are workers who are risking their lives every day to go to work. And the least that they (Eulen) can do is give the proper equipment so they can do their work safely while providing essential services at the airport,” Jaime Contreres, vice president for 32BJ SEIU, told WTOP.

Contreres said workers should have masks and gloves. “Whether they’re doing baggage handling, wheelchair attendants, doing cleaning at the airport, these are people who are exposing themselves to the public every day,” he said.

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Personal protective equipment is key to avoiding worker deaths from coronavirus, according to Contreres.

“The least that any employer can do — whether they’re airport or whether they’re working at a commercial office building or a city building — is provide people with the proper equipment,” he said.

“People are scared. … They’re scared, but they know that they have a job to do,” Contreres said. “They know that they have families to feed, and they have to go to work. And so they proudly go to work, but they’re also scared to report, especially when they don’t have the proper equipment to do their job.”

“And this is why we’re demanding that Eulen America make sure that the workers are safe while they’re providing essential services at the airport.”

Contreres said that the union has had issues with Eulen America many times in the past.

Eulen America did not respond to a phone call or form submission on their website from WTOP by press time.

Other local unions, with workers deemed essential during the pandemic, have found themselves on the front lines.

In April, grocery store workers said they should be considered first responders during the crisis.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, representing grocery store workers in the D.C. region, first made the plea in an online petition to the regional governors, as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

A change in classification would provide grocery workers with “free coverage for all coronavirus treatments and tests,” said UFCW Local 400 President Mark Federici in a statement. He also said the medicine and personal protective gear would also be paid for.

In March, Metro workers sounded off on fears they could be exposed to COVID-19.

“We have always been there for the public; we need the public to be there for us,” ATU Local 689 President Raymond Jackson told WTOP. “If you’re just going out to be out, please don’t do it, because you’re putting our operators in jeopardy.”

On a national level, President Donald Trump’s order to keep meat packing plants open has concerned unions.

The order, signed in April, used the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure to try to prevent a shortage of chicken, pork and other meat on supermarket shelves. Unions fired back, saying the White House was jeopardizing lives and prioritizing cold cuts over workers’ health.

WTOP’s Kristi King and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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