Over 250 frontline workers facing healthcare crisis say COVID-19 means debilitating disease and debt
TRENTON, N.J. — In a letter directed to state lawmakers, passenger service workers at Newark Liberty International Airport said that legislators and the media have missed a critical fact in reporting on COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus: thousands of airport workers don’t have health insurance and cannot afford to go to the doctor, which under the current crisis can put them, their families and the public they serve at risk.
Per recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, those experiencing symptoms consistent with early signs of the disease must visit a doctor as soon as possible. But thousands of workers like Silvana Barthelmy are forced to choose between taking steps to safeguard their health, or setting off a personal financial crisis by getting immediate medical attention.
“We need the people we elect to take this seriously,” Barthelmy said, a baggage claim attendant at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Working at the airport, passengers from all over the world come to us, and that’s a scary thing right now. I can’t afford to get sick when I already live every day without health insurance.”
Barthelmy has struggled to obtain health insurance since her wage rose to $15.60 per hour, and she was dropped off Medicaid. “There aren’t real healthcare options out there that won’t make me broke,” she said. “Widespread diseases will always pass through airports, and even with all of the right equipment, without health insurance, we can’t get to the doctor to get checked out.”
Over 250 passenger service workers from Newark Liberty International Airport sent a letter Thursday afternoon to the members of the New Jersey state assembly and senate calling on them to pass the Healthy Terminals Act (S-989/A2487, Weinberg/Quijano).
If this bill and a similar one in New York are passed into law, it would set a standard for 40,000 workers. Passenger service workers— baggage handlers, cleaners, wheelchair attendants, airport food service workers and more— would then earn a supplement to their wages that they could use to acquire desperately needed healthcare.
“The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has publicly acknowledged our essential role in monitoring and protecting critical state infrastructure,” the letter reads. “Today, we urgently call on you to provide that same protection for us, by passing the Healthy Terminals Act.
“We are more likely to forgo early tests for the COVID-19 virus, for fear of the tremendous bill that awaits. We are less likely to have regular exams, or get the medications and vaccines we need.”
Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-37), said that workers need this bill now. “This is alarming. Right now, airport workers face this contagion alone without meaningful health insurance to protect them, their families and their neighbors,” said Weinberg. “It’s not a question of if, but when the Coronavirus strikes the United States in greater numbers. It’s our duty to be prepared for the worst and that means equipping airport workers with the tools they need, including critical health insurance.”
“I urge the Senate and Assembly to pass the Healthy Terminals Act, for the sake of our state’s health and safety,” she added.
The legislation, sponsored by Senator Loretta Weinberg as S989 in the Senate, and sponsored by Assembly member Annette Quijano in the Assembly, would apply to workers at Newark Liberty International Airport. Companion legislation in New York State would cover workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport.
The bill would establish an employer-paid benefits supplement that has already been proven effective with the Service Contract Act, which currently provides $4.54, with small annual increases. Workers could then use this $4.54 for health insurance or employees working under collectively bargained contracts could negotiate to use this supplement to provide affordable, quality health insurance directly.
With 175,000 members in 11 states, including 10,000 airport workers in New Jersey and New York, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country.