NEW YORK (Reuters) - About 200 airline cabin cleaners walked off the job at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Thursday to protest what they say is insufficient protection from exposure to Ebola for workers whose jobs include cleaning up vomit and bathrooms.
Picket lines were set up overnight by non-unionized Air Serv cleaners outside Terminal D at LaGuardia for a one-day strike prompted by fears about the deadly virus, forcing airline crews to clean the planes themselves. Some signs read “Air Serv exposes us to vomit, blood and feces without protection” and “Air Serv puts worker safety at risk.”
The workers, who are trying to join Service Employees International Union, the largest service workers union in the United States, briefly left the strike line to attend an infectious disease training session organized by the union.
The minimal training lasted less than an hour and focused on removing contaminated gloves and washing up properly after potential exposure.
It was attended by workers from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airport, who fumbled with putting on and taking off bright blue and green latex gloves, which they said were thicker and better quality than the ones supplied by their employer.
“The bottom line is, I don’t want to die,” said Shareeka Elliott, 27, a terminal cleaner at JFK who said she attended the training out of a fear of contracting Ebola at work.
Cabin cleaner Marisa Collado, 46, said in Spanish: “When we clean toilets we don’t know if they are infected with Ebola.”
Another airline cabin cleaner, Kenny Gangji, 27, said despite his Ebola concerns, he plans to keep his job.
“I have to work, I have no choice,” said Gangji, noting that “sometimes when I pick up garbage, my gloves will break.”
U.S. officials this week announced tighter screening of travelers arriving from West Africa, where Ebola has killed almost 4,000 people, at five major airports, including JFK. LaGuardia, which serves only U.S., Canadian and Caribbean destinations, is not among them.
The federal government took that step after Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who was the first person diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, died at a Dallas hospital on Wednesday.
Air Serv’s owner, ABM Industries Inc, said in a statement that it trains cabin cleaners to deal with blood-borne pathogens and other problems, provides them with protective equipment and continually updates its procedures, “including an update on protocols for Ebola just last week.”
The walkout involved Delta Air Lines Inc flights, and airline staffers normally assigned to other jobs at the terminal ended up cleaning up the planes, according to Delta spokeswoman Elizabeth Wolf. No flights were delayed or canceled, she said.
The striking Air Serv workers said they have not had adequate training to protect themselves and are not provided with durable gloves or face masks to use when cleaning with strong chemicals.
They said in a statement their employer has halved the size of cleanup crews and reduced the time allotted to clean an entire plane to as little as five minutes instead of up to 45 minutes.
Later the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the area’s airports, said it would consider the issues raised during the one-day strike.
“The Port Authority has agreed to review the concerns raised today by AirServ’s cleaning personnel at LaGuardia Airport and is pleased they will be returning to their jobs,” it said.
Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Eric Walsh and Sandra Maler