EXPOSED:  Transportation Security Officers who do screening at the nation’s airports are among the workers whose duties regularly expose them to the coronavirus, as became clear when three who work at the San Jose International Airport tested positive for the sometimes-deadly disease March 10. Their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, wants them equipped with N95 protective masks, contending the surgical masks they can now use don’t adequately shield them from coughs and sneezes.

Across the nation, local, county and state governments all are coping with the coronavirus by balancing the need to provide essential services with ensuring the safety of their workforces and the public they serve.

In March 11 testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers the coronavirus was “10 times more lethal” than the flu.

Domino Effect on Workers

In the travel and health-services industries, even one employee testing positive for the highly contagious virus could require several co-workers to be sidelined for 14 days of self-quarantine.

On March 10, 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. The officers are receiving medical care and all TSA employees they have come in contact with over the past 14 days are quarantined at home.”

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.

Union Rips TSA

On March 12, the union representing TSOs blasted the TSA for not doing enough to protect officers and the flying public from COVID-19.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents nearly 46,000 TSA officers nationwide, demanded the agency increase safety protocols after its three members at San Jose International Airport tested positive for the virus.

The union called upon TSA Administrator David Pekoske to provide their members on the “front-line” with N95 protective masks.

So far, the agency has denied the request.

“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,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.

Masks Offered Inadequate

The union also blasted the TSA for offering its members “optional surgical masks” which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says do not filter out small particles from coughs and sneezes from co-workers and air travelers.

“Our officers screen more than 2 million passengers across the country every day,” said AFGE TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas. “We do everything we can to protect passengers, but who is protecting us?”

In San Jose, close to 40 employees were told to self-quarantine after having contact with the infected workers. “It’s clear that not enough is being done to protect TSOs from this virus,” said Mr. Thomas. “There is a shortage of cleaning supplies, masks, and protective gloves at many airports.”

AFGE first wrote TSA officials on Jan. 29 and asked them to aggressively respond to the threat of coronavirus, which had first surfaced among public-health experts after an outbreak in Wuhan, China in December.

“This is exactly what our union wanted to avoid when we first brought this to the agency’s attention,” said Mr. Kelley. “For years, AFGE has called on Congress and TSA to provide TSOs with the fair workplace rights and protections that they have been denied since the agency’s creation. If TSOs had those rights, employees may have been able to use those additional collective-bargaining protections to work with the agency on a solution.”

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