Memo to President: Working Sick Kills – See COVID

It’s been a week since President Biden and a Democratic Congress took the draconian step of imposing a labor pact that most of the nation’s 125,000 rail workers voted down because it lacked more than one sick day per year. The last time this happened was in 1992 when President George W. Bush did it.

However, Biden’s anti-labor move coincided with surges in COVID, the flu and pediatric respiratory virus cases across the country, a confluence public health experts have described as a tripledemic.

In the week since the pushback has been considerable and a coalition of rail workers are planning to rally next Tuesday at 1 p.m. in front of the nation’s Capitol and at several other locations across the country. They plan on protesting the greed of the railroads and their deteriorating working conditions which they say put both their health and public safety at risk.


The failure of President Biden and Congress to grasp the linkage between protecting the health of rail workers and the broader public health, almost three years into a pandemic that has killed more than one million Americans and sidelined millions more, many of them essential workers should disturb us all.

Early in the pandemic, it was the transport, food processing, healthcare and emergency service sectors whose workers and families paid such a heavy price. And public health experts will tell you, the lack of paid sick days often compels these workers to come to work sick and, in the process, infect their co-workers and the general public.

The consequences of this in the transport, agricultural, food processing, emergency services and health care sectors can be catastrophic and helped drive up the U.S. body count during COVID. While we accounted for just 4 percent of the world’s population, we accounted for 25 percent of the world’s COVID cases in the beginning, and even now, with vaccination widely available, we still account for 14 percent of the COVID deaths.

While there is still no registry to track the thousands upon thousands of essential workers who perished keeping our society functioning the do have names and families.  Here in New Jersey, on April 2, 2020, it was 39-year-old Frank Boccabella, who worked out of Newark Liberty Airport as security dog handler, was the first Transportation Safety Administration’s COVID fatality.

At that point there were just 4,700 COVID related deaths.

Dr. Ed Zuroweste, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and the founding Medical Director of the Migrant Clinicians Network, there’s a strong public health consensus that paid sick leave is foundational to protecting the public health especially in the transport, food processing, emergency and health services.

“Anybody with that much interface with the public and often times with the vulnerable public is a great way to transmit illness,” Zuroweste said during a Dec. 9 phone interview. “There’s no question paid sick leave is extremely important…. Otherwise, they come to work sick and then they just spread whatever it is. It’s not a good thing.”

Weeks before COVID-19 got traction in states like New Jersey and the nation’s congregate-care facilities, it showed up in the air-transportation sector even as President Trump repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the virus, comparing it to the flu. On March 10, 2020, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration used a tweet to announce that “three Transportation Security Officers who work at Mineta San Jose International Airport have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.”


Four days earlier, officials confirmed that two British Airways baggage-handlers at London’s Heathrow Airport had tested positive for coronavirus, requiring the testing of their co-workers. On March 12, the American Federation of Government Employees blasted the TSA for not doing enough to protect officers and the flying public from COVID-19. The union called upon TSA Administrator David Pekoske to provide workers on the “front-line” with N95 protective masks.

“Despite our union’s numerous requests for adequate masks and protective equipment, TSA has failed to properly equip our officers with the resources they need to prevent infection,” Everett Kelley, AFGE president, said in a statement at the time.

The agency denied the request.

It was not until May 7, 2020, after several TSA screeners had died, that the agency implemented an on-the-job mask requirement, a policy that private-sector airline carriers began adopting weeks earlier. On April 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rescinded its initial COVID-19 guidance against members of the public wearing masks, noting that additional research had revealed that 25 percent of those with the coronavirus showed no symptoms but could easily spread the disease.

“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” the agency said in a statement. “In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

In an interview Kelley said his union had entered the kind of fight it had with the TSA over personal protective equipment, but this round was about getting the tens of thousands of TSA workers tested for the COVID-19, something he claimed the agency still resisted, even as transit agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit had embraced it.

“These airport screeners might be infected and not know it because they are not testing them,” he told me back in 2020. “This means that as the flying public comes through every day that passes, the virus can get passed on that way.”

In the years since, the big push has been on vaccinating workers and the public but little self-reflection by the federal government and its agencies on how their actions may have helped spread the virus and drive up the death toll as the response fractured along partisan and political boundaries. Here in New Jersey, where the death toll was one of the highest, Trenton has yet to sign off on spending $100 million of the billions the state got from the federal government in pandemic financial aid for hazard pay for the lowest paid essential workers.


New Jersey State Senator Joe Cryan (D-20th), whose job as executive director of the Middlesex County Utility Authorities puts him in daily contact with an essential workforce, says he thinks that hazard pay, which has moved in states like Connecticut and Minnesota, has stalled here because too many of his fellow Democrats think “organized labor is just the building trades…and don’t have any understanding of what these pandemic conditions were like and what should be done now as a result.”

Cryan continued. “We just don’t get what people went through and what they sacrificed in standing up what they had to do with their job. It’s crazy but some believe that some facets of organized labor are just more important than others.”

The former Union County Sheriff told Insider NJ he watched closely on the Congressional debate on the imposition of the rail pact and the separate bill calling for the paid sick time for rail workers which in the House was managed by New Jersey’s Congressman Donald Payne Jr.

Eight House Democrats voted NO on President Biden’s request to impose the rail pact including New Jersey’s Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st), that body’s only union electrician.

“Today, I voted to keep a critical piece of American infrastructure running: our railways,” Norcross said in a statement. “I voted to ensure that the workers who operate that strategic asset are treated fairly, earn a decent wage, and get paid sick leave. These hardworking men and women kept food on the table during the pandemic and kept goods on the shelves of small businesses. Our nation needs these workers to be healthy and strong so we can continue to grow our economy and deliver for the American people.”

“Donald Norcross got it,” Cryan said approvingly.

When asked if Biden should impose an executive order mandating the 7-day paid sick days he said he was no expert, yet on the politics of it all he was clear.

“Joe Biden should take whatever action is necessary to protect workers and he should stand up for that to the hilt and that will make him a strong president,” Cryan said.

While the legislation to compel the nation’s railroads to grant seven paid sick days passed in the House, with three Republicans crossing the aisle to support the unions, it did better at picking up Republican support in the Senate where it passed 52 to 43, falling short of the 60 required to pass. Of course, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) voting NO, but six Republican Senators crossed the aisle to join all the other Democrats to support the labor position.


Not present for that vote were Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) whose run-off election was Tuesday. Oddly, Senator Booker was present to cast the vote to impose the controversial rail pact but was MIA for the sick day provision because he “was returning to the Capitol to cast his vote and the vote was closed before he could make it back,” according to his staff.

While Democrats are pointing to their historic wins in the U.S. Senate, poor turnout in states like New York, New Jersey, and California show the kind of soft spots in working class households that set the stage for the 2021 defeat of Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney by his GOP opponent Edward Durr.

In an insightful column this week, Edward Luce, the US national editor for the Financial Time,s observed it had been “a bumpy 50 years for blue-collar America. Not only has labor’s share of US national income steadily dropped barring a few brief patches, chiefly the 1990s internet boom, but its life expectancy has also been falling.”

Luce noted that while Biden was “the country’s first avowedly pro-union president since Lyndon Johnson” his party is nevertheless “on the hook for its failure to deliver. By 2024 Democrats will have controlled the White House for 20 out of 32 years. Yet the federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 an hour, which is half what my teenage daughter gets paid to babysit. Canada and the UK both have a 50 per cent higher floor.”

Luce continued. “Last week, Biden arm-twisted Congress to pass a bill that banned the nation’s railway workers from striking “despite the fact a majority of members “rejected a deal offered by the railroad companies. Their grievances are less about money than work-life balance. Railroads have among the leanest workforces in the US, having shed about a third of their payroll in the years before the pandemic. Fatigue and strain are rife in jobs that entail multiple consecutive shifts, often far from home.”

And most alarmingly, the Democrats chronic failure to deliver decade in and decade out, has paralleled an erosion in the foundation of what was the bedrock of the FDR coalition, working class voters. When 800,000 Black voters, who voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 but stayed home in 2016, Trump exploited white working-class resentment to carry the rust belt and win the White House.

Both parties set the stage for the current crisis because they do their heaviest lifting for big donors like the rail tycoons. Thanks to Wall Street’s machinations and our tax code that promoted it, the nation’s freight railroads have gone from well over 40 in the 1980s, down to just 7 behemoths that have a monopoly power rivaling that of the late 19th century robber barons Vanderbilt and Gould would envy. Ironically, as many rail workers risked their health and that of their families, during the pandemic, these same corporations reaped tens of billions in profit even as they drove their workforce harder and harder with what’s called “precision railroading” which punishes workers for taking time off for whatever reason.

John Samuelsen is the international president of Transport Workers Union, which represent thousands of workers in New Jersey, including quite a few at Newark Liberty International Airport. He thinks Democrats can’t afford to take union households for granted without providing an opening for Republicans.

“The economic issues are essential, and this is something that the social left of the Democratic Party misses every time,” he said.  “It’s volatile. It’s been going building like this since the Blue Dog Democrats took over in the 1990s. Things like this railroad situation all add up for working people and every industry has a version of something like this. Everything post-pandemic is magnified and heightened.”

TWU’s Local 100, which runs the New York City’s MTA system, over 100 members died from COVID, mostly before the vaccine. “I don’t think Biden can afford to go the next two years—or really the next several months, without intervening to fix the sick day policy with the railroads. I think he recognizes the amount of anger that’s swelling up with rank-and-file workers and not just with the railroads but everywhere else with people who realize what a shafting it is to have to go to work everyday without sick time. It’s also just a bad business model to encourage everybody to come in with the flu and contaminate the whole workplace. It makes no sense.”


George Gresham is the president of SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East, the nation’s largest healthcare union with 8,000 members here in New Jersey. He believes its incumbent on labor must up its game in the face of the acceleration of corporate consolidation and power.

“No matter what the industry, in these days it’s getting harder and harder for working people to make a living or to get treated fairly and these large industries they can care less and less about working people,” Gresham said. “We must figure out a way we can coalesce tighter to bring back the unity and the strength of labor in this country both organized labor and the labor yet to be organized. The math is always in our favor. We can’t give up on it. There are just so many more of us than the bosses.”



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