PortandTerminal.com, December 13, 2020
NEW YORK – New York Times journalist Pranshu Verma has published an important article in which he highlights the critical role America’s longshore workers play in the economy and the elevated vulnerability that they face of infection by COVID-19.
Hidden, essential workers
Longshore workers and their families are asking that they be provided rapid testing and early access to the coronavirus vaccine so they can remain on the job and prevent outbreaks from shutting the nation’s ports.
“We’re hidden,” said Kenneth Riley, the president of the local longshoremen’s union in Charleston, S.C. “But if you think some of the store shelves were empty as we got into this pandemic, let these ports shut down and see how empty they’ll be.”
“(I’m) trying not to get sick. Last night a foreman told me a crane driver left work at 8:30 because he got a text saying he was positive for COVID. The signal person has to leave because he was exposed to the crane op.” – LA port worker speaking with PortandTerminal.com
High risk of exposure to COVID-19
Longshore work is exhausting, and often requires close contact with others. The trade is essential to the economy, with longshore workers serving as a crucial link between moving goods from a shipping vessel onto trucks and trains that send them to their final destination, experts said.
The workers at highest risk of being exposed to the virus are deep-sea longshoremen, who do most of the work that requires the lifting and moving of goods, union officials noted.
Lashers, who take steel rods off containers so they can be lifted by crane operators, sweat and breathe heavily as they work in pairs side by side. Shuttle drivers, responsible for transporting their fellow longshoremen to and from either ends of a dock that can stretch for miles, spend their days packed in Ford Crown Victorias and school buses with other longshoremen.
“It’s very high risk,” said Gail Jackson, 45, a shuttle driver on the docks in Charleston who contracted the virus and spent weeks off the job. “There’s no way for us to be six feet distanced.”
The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which represents about 65,000 longshore workers, has lobbied the federal government and state officials for support. In a letter in September to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, union officials asked that longshore workers be provided personal protective equipment, sanitizer and rapid coronavirus tests, saying the officials who operate the terminals where longshore workers operate have “provided no protective equipment to our members despite Covid-19 risks.”
Christopher Hammond, 49, a longshoreman in New Orleans, who handles the finances for the workers’ union in the city, said he still had no funding to provide his workers coronavirus tests. “There’s a real problem,” he said. “We can’t even gauge the level of people that are infected because we can’t test.” At least four longshoremen have died at this port, according to union representatives.
“There are people who know they’re sick, and go into work,” said Alan A. Robb, the president of the longshore union’s Gulf Coast district office, in Texas. “They can’t afford to miss a day.”
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