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Philly port workers threatened a work stoppage over coronavirus safety precautions. They’re still calling for more.

The port workers are yet another group of essential workers calling for greater safety on the job during the pandemic.

Longhshoremen at the Port of Philadelphia say employers aren't doing enough to keep them safe on the job.
Longhshoremen at the Port of Philadelphia say employers aren't doing enough to keep them safe on the job.Read moreFile photo

Since mid-March, when much of Philadelphia shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the union that represents the thousands of workers who unload and load ships has been calling for better safety precautions at the Port of Philadelphia.

The union, the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1291, wanted workers to be monitored for coronavirus symptoms before coming on-site, protective equipment, and medical staff for workers who felt sick during the day.

When nothing happened for weeks, the union increased its pressure. Last week, it told the Ports of Delaware River Marine Trade Association (PMTA) that, if it didn’t institute symptom monitoring, it would tell its members it was not safe to come to work, according to Nan Lassen, the union’s lawyer.

On any given day, there could be thousands of workers at the port, Lassen said, depending on how many ships come in and how full they are. Goods such as fruit and cars come in through the terminals, as well as paper pulp for companies such as Kimberly Clark, which manufactures toilet paper, diapers, and Kleenex. Alongside the longshoremen work crane operators and hundreds of truck drivers who transport goods off the port.

This week, medical staff are checking temperatures and asking workers about symptoms before they begin work, Lassen said. They’re being sent home if they have a temperature over 100.4 degrees or any symptoms.

But the checks are happening only for a roughly three-hour period in the mornings, even though workers come on site throughout the day, Lassen said. And only longshoremen are being checked, not the truck drivers who come on the piers throughout the day.

The union is pleased with the initial steps, Lassen said, “but whether they are doing all that they can to the maximum extent possible is still unclear.”

PMTA, the employer association that holds the contract with the union that represents workers at the Philadelphia port, did not respond to requests for comment.

The longshoremen are yet another example of workers deemed essential during the pandemic who have said their employers are not doing enough to keep them safe on the job.

All across the region, in workplaces such as grocery stores, hospitals, nursing homes, and jails, workers have decried the lack of protective equipment and social distancing on the job. There are barely any enforceable federal workplace safety laws focused on those working during the pandemic. That has forced workers to advocate for themselves, threatening or actually conducting work stoppages to force employers into implementing actions to protect their health.

Under labor law, it’s not considered a strike if workers stop working in the case of “abnormally dangerous conditions,” which could serve as a form of protection for workers who withhold their labor during the coronavirus, Lassen said.

Some dockworkers at the Port of Oakland threatened to stop work late last month at a terminal that they said was not properly sanitizing equipment. Worker unrest comes at a time when dockworkers are especially important, as concerns about supply chain disruptions rise, and ports see a drop in cargo: The Port of Los Angeles reported a 30% drop in cargo compared with this time last year, while the Port of Oakland saw a 7% drop. Both attributed the decrease to the coronavirus.

Leo Holt, president of Holt Logistics, which runs the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, said that “since before the guidance of social distancing and other CDC recommendations, the management [at Packer Avenue] began a protocol of deep cleaning equipment and work spaces, advisories to all employees and visitors, and careful monitoring of the work situation, distancing during cargo operations, restrictions on over the road truck drivers and distancing.”

There are now portable hand-washing stations at the Packer terminal, Holt said, as well as temperature monitoring. “Even more measures are being deployed,” he said.