COVID-19 cases surge among American Airlines employees at Sky Harbor

American Airline employees who work “above the wing,” including gate agents and customer service workers, have not been hit as hard as their ramp worker counterparts at Sky Harbor, said Kimberly Barboro, president of Teamsters Local 104, which represents about 500 of those workers.

Barboro said she knows of fewer than three COVID-19 cases among the American Airlines members she represents. She thinks the airline is listening to its employees about their needs, but said the real problem is lagging federal guidance. 

“We think that the government isn’t moving fast enough to put in regulations and rules so that we can be safe,” she said. 

Internal American Airlines employee memos explain that employees who test positive for the virus should notify their local managers, and that personal information shared will remain confidential given medical privacy laws. Confirmed cases are then shared with the American Airlines’ Pandemic Response team to review “any team members or vendors who may have been exposed and which locations need to be sanitized. Those who have been exposed will be contacted and guided on next steps.”

American Airlines ramp employees who spoke anonymously to AZCIR said those notifications are often delayed, sometimes by more than a week at a time.

AZCIR reviewed hundreds of posts on a private Facebook group of airline employees in Phoenix, where multiple posts showed emails and text messages from American Airlines notifying employees that they may have been exposed to the virus. In some cases, employees were notified within several days. In others, notifications ranged from one week to nearly a month. 

Rezler, the union representative for American Airlines’ fleet services division, said he understands the frustrations about late notifications. He said there are times when airline staff can’t reach infected employees in a timely manner to determine when their symptoms began, or confirm shifts they worked when they may have been asymptomatic. Those delays are exacerbated  by the fact that the airline must then compile up to 48 hours of potential contacts among other employees.

“When the company explained some of the scenarios, it sounded legit,” Rezler said. 

Internal employee documents reviewed by AZCIR state that American Airlines employees “will not receive attendance points or occurrences or be progressed through any discipline processes due to absences. American’s sick and attendance policies are designed for you to stay home when necessary and vary by workgroup.” Employees can apply for a 14 day paid leave, but they must first have a clinically confirmed case of COVID-19 or have a doctor’s note mandating they quarantine, the documents said. 

But in dozens of Facebook posts on the Phoenix American Airlines private group, employees wrote about a serious disconnect between the company’s official policies and what their local managers had told them about taking time off after exposure to COVID-19. Employees expressed concern about taking sick time because they claimed local managers had warned them that using sick days could hurt their employment records. 

“Anyone who has been exposed, and you have been notified, they leave it to be your choice of whether you go to get tested,” said Donald Carbonneau, president of the local IAM union. 

The national IAM union has called on the CDC to release new guidance recommending transportation employees can get tested even when they are not experiencing symptoms — since the virus can be spread by people who are asymptomatic. 

In recent days, locations such as Los Angeles County, San Francisco, Michigan and New York have started offering testing to all essential workers, including those without symptoms. 

Peterson said the federal government needs to set minimum safety standards for transportation workers during the pandemic that can be enforced – and the equipment to go with it. For example, he would like to see the Occupational Safety and Health Administration require a minimum number of pairs of gloves and masks transportation workers need to have each day.

“We’re waiting for something to happen when it should be happening already – because we’re seeing members die,” Peterson said. “This truly is life or death.”


Comments are closed.