As the virus surges, outbreaks are starting to re-emerge in ports across the United States.
In interviews with over a dozen longshoremen, their families and maritime officials at multiple ports in the country, all urged government officials to recognize the essential nature of longshore work and protect individuals from conditions that make it ripe for the virus to spread.
They say longshore workers should be provided rapid testing and early access to the 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.”
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.
Over 95 percent of overseas trade for the United States flows through one of around 150 deepwater ports in the country, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The workers at highest risk of being exposed to the virus are deep sea longshoremen, who are primarily Black and do most of the work that requires the lifting and moving of goods, union officials noted.
Many officials note that since the nature of longshore work is day labor, workers may look for any reason to escape getting tested unless they show symptoms to prevent going weeks without pay as they isolate.
“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.”
The International Longshoremen’s Association, a union that represents about 65,000 longshore workers, has lobbied the federal government and state officials for support.
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