When your boss says you're "essential": Are you willing to risk your life?

Civil service workers in New York are still haunted by the betrayals of 9/11. Will this pandemic be even worse?

Published April 6, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

An FDNY medical worker wears personal protective equipment outside a COVID-19 testing site at Elmhurst Hospital Center (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
An FDNY medical worker wears personal protective equipment outside a COVID-19 testing site at Elmhurst Hospital Center (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

As New York City and the surrounding region prepare for a week that is sure to try our souls, state, county and municipal managers are grappling with the hardest choices imaginable, as are their private sector counterparts.

For the workers deemed essential, irrespective of job description or civil service title, the question is whether keeping their job is worth the risk to their lives and that of their families.

This internal gut check will be informed in part by finances. Prior annual Federal Reserve surveys told us that 40 percent of Americans would be hard-pressed to put their hands on $400 without borrowing it.

Post COVID-19, there's no doubt things have deteriorated even more for working families who are apt to take risks because they have no other option.

Your money or your life?

It will also turn on the nature of a worker's health and that of their immediate household. Do they have a pre-existing condition, or does a household member for whom exposure to COVID-19 could be a death sentence?

As our health care workers are triaging the patients stricken with COVID-19, managers' deliberations on just which workers are essential have taken on a gravity they may not entirely appreciate. More precisely, they must designate those required to report to their job in person on the front lines of a war that's generating casualties at a rate hard to comprehend.

In New York City, the National Guard has had to backfill the city medical examiner and pick up dozens of people that have died in their homes.

Fire Department EMS crews have been ordered not to bring in cardiac arrest patients that they can't revive in the field after their best efforts.

In Passaic, New Jersey, 33-year-old Israel Tolentino, a firefighter and EMT, died from COVID-19. He is survived by his wife Maria and two small children, according to Local officials are calling it a line-of-duty death.

COVID-19 goes nationwide

Sadly, this is not a regional story, but one that is already playing out in undulating waves of unprecedented pain and misery across our nation, even as our federal COVID-19 response stumbles and struts.

In the midst of this terrifying maelstrom, our economy has melted down and our world is being redefined by a threat we still don't fully comprehend, even as life appears to go on and the death toll mounts.

The anticipated surge in critical ICU cases and the body count they will likely generate this week will further try our hearts and souls as no tribulation in living memory.

Our hidden conveyor belt

For most people the inner workings of our water supply, sewage, transit, health care, power supply, telecommunications, mail and food distribution and justice systems are largely invisible.

Pre COVID-19, life was like a lazy-Susan, where all these interdependent functions smoothly turned, like a well-oiled machine, producing the services and product as we required and when we required, seemingly by magic.

How they actually work, or who performed the tasks that made them work, was of little concern to most of us — until they broke down, as all human endeavors do.

The garbage is taken away. The water runs when you turn the faucet and the toilet flushes our waste away.

The sun rises. It sets.

More than just a job

In this brave new world of COVID-19, being designated as an "essential" worker means that you can't shelter in place, as the general public is being told to do to slow the advance the virus and prevent our health care system from collapsing.

Public officials are basing their COVID-19 mandates on "federal guidance" from the Trump administration's Centers for Disease Control that is ever changing.

In our bureaucratic culture we tend to defer to authority, which is where the decisions on compensation and promotion reside. We watch movies about whistleblowers, but many of us know someone in the private or public sector who tried to do the right thing and got crushed for it.

While being in a union is no guarantee of anything, it can help workers push back against misguided or potentially destructive instructions from management and government authorities, often promulgated for ulterior motives like covering up for previous mistakes originating from on high.

This has manifested itself in a myriad of ways throughout this crisis. Consider the Jet Blue flight crew in Florida that refused an order to continue flying after they had been exposed to a coronavirus-positive passenger.

In that case, a manager told the fight crew, represented by the Transportation Workers Union, that they should keep working until they were symptomatic, because they could not spread it until then.

That manager, of course, was wrong. As is now widely recognized, people can be contagious and spread this scourge even when completely asymptomatic. The workers were right. Their bosses were wrong.

The union saw to it that the flight crew got two weeks' pay to self-quarantine and in the process saved their co-workers and the flying public from an exposure some of them might not have survived.

As I have previously reported, the unions representing nurses and New York City's FDNY EMS warned weeks ago that the CDC's expedient watering down of occupational health standards, to compensate for the scarcity of equipment, posed a risk to their members' health, their families and the very viability of the entire public health response.

They warned that the CDC's efforts to manage PPE inventory by promulgating flawed occupational health regulations would help spread the disease and risk the lives of health care professionals.

They were proven right on both scores. We may need a 9/11-style commission to explore how such a critical agency gave out such flawed and dangerous "guidance" based on the economics of scarcity.

"Déjà vu all over again"

For our region's first responders and essential workers who served in lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attack, during the World Trade Center site cleanup operation, official federal "guidance" will always be suspect.

It's a cruel trick of history that this American pandemic, projected to take as many as a quarter of a million lives, is focused in our region where the death and disease toll from 9/11 was so high.

In the past week, as the regional COVID-19 body count approached 3,000 — the approximate number of people killed on the day of the WTC attack — many elected leaders and reporters used the 9/11 body count as a yardstick by which to measure this current tragedy.

Yet, as my readers know at the Chief-Leader, that's by no means the actual WTC body count, which continues to this day. Since 9/11, at least as many people, if not more, have died from inhaling the toxic air that permeated lower Manhattan for months after the attack.

Over 50,000 people are participating in the World Trade Center Health Program with one or more cancers or other life-altering ailments. Between the civilians, local residents, students and first responders in lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn, close to a half million people had potentially dangerous WTC exposure from Sept. 11, 2001, until the end of the clean-up in May of the following year.

And while the national 9/11 narrative includes ailing cops and firefighters, there are hundreds of thousands of civilians who were also exposed. Roughly 2,500 teachers and 19,000 school children were also sent into harm's way when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani re-opened 29 schools in the WTC hot zone that people were told was safe.

The governmental message was all about returning to normalcy and "showing the world the terrorists would not win." 

Safe to breathe? No

Three days after the 9/11 attack, it was former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who told reporters that  "the good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern."

That upbeat and inaccurate statement was uttered as the fires at the World Trade Center site continued to burn and smolder until just before Christmas.

Two years after 9/11, a review by the EPA inspector general concluded that the agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," as "air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern."

Moreover, the inspector general learned that it President George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) had heavily edited the EPA press releases "to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."

Even though samples taken indicated that asbestos levels in lower Manhattan were between double and triple EPA's limit, the CEQ  downplayed the readings as being "slightly above" the limits, the EPA IG found.

When the inspector general tried to identify who had actually written the misleading press statements, investigators "were unable to identify any EPA official who claimed ownership" and were told by the EPA chief of staff that "final approval came from the White House."

"She also told us that other considerations, such as the desire to reopen Wall Street and national security concerns, were considered when preparing EPA's early press releases," according to the inspector general's report.

According to Scientific American, the WTC cloud of dust was the result of the collapse of the Twin Towers and the 1,000-degree Celsius fires that ensued, fed by 91,000 liters of jet fuel along with the partial incineration of 10 million tons of pulverized building materials.

The WTC complex debris included heavy metals like lead, hundreds of tons of asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that "become even more toxic when burned at high heat, and glass fibers that lodge in the lungs," reported Scientific American. "The levels of dioxin measured in the air near the smoldering pile 'were the highest ambient measurements of dioxin ever recorded anywhere in the world,' levels at least 100 times higher than those found downwind of a garbage incinerator, according to an analysis published by EPA scientists."


Scroll forward to our COVID-19 misery where the entire nation is now holding its breath for the latest "guidance" from another three-letter federal bureaucracy that's focused on "managing" a pandemic they failed to anticipate or prepare for.

As I reported for the Chief Leader in the first week of March, when the death toll in the U.S. was at 11, the Transport Workers United Local 100 that represents the city's transit workers was at loggerheads with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates New York's subways, buses and commuter trains.

On one side, Local 100 supported its members' right to wear masks, while MTA management insisted that doing so was unnecessary, according to the CDC.

"Medical guidance indicates that respiratory masks do not protect healthy people — they are designed to keep infected people from spreading a virus to others," said Pat Warren, the MTA's chief safety officer, in a statement. "Accordingly, since a mask is not part of the authorized uniform and not medically recommended at this time, they may not be worn by uniformed MTA employees. In the event that guidance from federal and state health authorities should recommend a modification of this policy, it will be reevaluated at that time."

The union pushed back and insisted that if transit workers were essential, they should have access to personal protection equipment like masks and gloves, as well as access to testing.

As most of you reading this will know already, on April 3 the CDC changed its guidance to advise the public cover their mouth and nose with a non-medical grade mask.

Even before the CDC flip-flopped, the MTA had  been scrambling for masks for the Local 100 workforce, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo called "heroic" for continuing to operate the region's essential public transit system.

The TWU Local 100 death toll from COVID-19 is now in the double digits. More than 3,000 MTA employees, across the agency's various transit divisions, have been sidelined with the virus.

In an interview with the Chief-Leader, Sarah Feinberg, the interim leader of the MTA's New York City Transit, freely admitted that the conflicting and ever-evolving CDC medical guidance was problematic for both the public and managers who are responsible for keeping employees safe.

"It has really been a moving target," she said. "It is incredibly frustrating."

For Local 100, the lessons of 9/11 were particularly brutal with close to 4,000 members working in an around the World Trade Center throughout the cleanup. The union continues to award a medal to the families of their members who succumb to WTC-related disease. COVID-19 poses a particular hazard to those who successfully beat their WTC cancer and came back to work.

Heroes need masks

John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union International, which represents 150,000 workers in the airline and transit sectors in the U.S., says that if employers are going to designate employees essential, they are morally obligated to provide them protective equipment like masks and gloves.

"There is a reciprocal obligation of the employer, really of society, to ensure we [essential workers] are not unnecessarily exposed while we are doing these jobs," he said. "That's not just done through personal protection equipment, but also through adequate mitigation, things like social distancing and testing."

In New Jersey, Hetty Rosenstein leads the Communications Worker of America New Jersey, which represents 65,000 public sector employees, including workers in the state's psychiatric hospitals, residential developmental centers and state prisons, where the pandemic is an acute challenge.

"We need this PPE desperately, and it has taken a long time to get it," Rosenstein said. "The first PPE had to go to the hospitals, so then we have to really struggle for anybody who is not involved in direct [patient care] — and even for those people in direct care we have not gotten enough PPE."

As Samuelsen sees it, COVID-19 has flipped the American script when it comes to who holds the balance of power between labor and Wall Street.

"No doubt about it, it's a real crapshoot if Americans society as we have known it is going to survive unfettered capitalism," he said. "This pandemic has brought great clarity to the absolute fact that it is blue-collar America that produces in this country and drives American society."

Know the science

To honor the memory of the thousands of first responders and civilians who have died from 9/11 environmental exposures, workers should not be bullied by managers or government authorities who may have ulterior economic or political motives for a premature return to "normalcy."

The geniuses did not see it coming, and those who did downplayed it. Our top national leadership continues to bungle an effective response to this existential threat by insisting that all 50 states bid against each other in the "free market" for PPE.

As a result, even more health workers will contract the virus, spread it to the public they are trying to heal and fall gravely ill or die themselves, further undermining our collective ability to contain the virus.

Educate yourself on the science. Adhere to official guidance but continue to vet it. Always ask yourself: How do I know what I know?

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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