LEILA FADEL, HOST:
In this modern age of jet travel, it was a matter of time and basic biology that the coronavirus would come to the United States. Yesterday, the first U.S. death was reported. And at least 60 people are known to be infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of contracting the virus remains low. But that hasn't eased the worries of airport workers who say they're on the frontlines.
Yvette Stephens is a security guard for international flights and customs at Newark Liberty International Airport. She says, every day, she's in contact with hundreds of passengers from all over the world.
YVETTE STEPHENS: Like, when we're at work, we have people every single day that cough, sneeze - don't cover their mouths or their nose.
FADEL: Stephens says she and other airport workers aren't getting the training or the protection they need against the virus.
STEPHENS: Well, they offer gloves, and they let us know the main thing is the mask that they're going to give us. But we won't know more until they start the training process.
FADEL: Stephens wasn't willing to wait for masks, so she brought her own supply from home and has handed them out to co-workers. We should note that the CDC is not recommending that healthy people wear masks. Frequent hand-washing and staying away from people who are sick is more effective. But what if your job is to clean the planes and you don't know who's sick and who's not?
Barbara Gomez works at the Los Angeles International Airport for Jetstream Ground Services. In late January, an American Airlines flight arrived from China where the outbreak started. She was told to board the plane.
BARBARA GOMEZ: I was scared to death. I start crying.
FADEL: She says her boss told her she had to clean the cabin or risk losing her job. She said no.
GOMEZ: Then my other manager came out the office. And he says, do you know that over 200 people going to be boarding this aircraft in the morning? I says, I don't care. Barbara Gomez is not going on aircraft. You know, this is about my health.
FADEL: Gomez didn't get on that plane. She was eventually reassigned to clean a domestic flight. But now that the coronavirus is in the U.S., that's no longer much comfort to workers. Cabin-cleaning crews still come in contact with bodily fluids that passengers leave behind.
GOMEZ: We did not get any training whatsoever - no training how to handle any type of aircraft that comes in with disease or virus. It's just, go clean the airplane. Right now, we hardly have solution to clean the airplanes with. They don't even give us no gloves.
FADEL: The union that represents cabin-cleaning staff, United Service Workers West, says they are hearing similar reports from their members. The city of Los Angeles requires that every year, all LAX airport workers undergo 16 hours of emergency preparedness training in infectious disease control.
We spoke with Marc Desnoyers, the president of Jetstream, which employs Barbara Gomez. He says there's no lack of gloves and no shortage of cleaning products. Masks are also available. All of his employees, he says, undergo multiday trainings, which include biohazard awareness. And he says the company records show that Ms. Gomez completed her mandatory training last November.
We went back to Ms. Gomez. She told us that the only training she received was 30 minutes of CPR. Gomez and at least half a dozen other workers have filed signed complaints with the city against Jetstream for failing to provide the required emergency training.
Whatever their training, many airline workers are scared. Yvette Stephens, who works at Newark's airport, says she has no choice but to go to work.
STEPHENS: You know, I have to pay my bills. I have to pay rent.
FADEL: And she, like many hourly airport workers, has no health insurance.
STEPHENS: Ebola, flu, the common cold - just say, God forbid, somebody was to get sick from this, without insurance, they wouldn't be able to do anything.
FADEL: Yvette Stephens and Barbara Gomez both say the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - wash your hands; don't touch your face; constantly clean and disinfect surfaces - well, it isn't reassuring. For now, they'll keep working the frontlines and hope they don't get sick.
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