Labor Unions Ask USDOT for Mandated Passenger Face Masks

On July 27, Larry Willis, the President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), sent a letter on behalf of TTD’s 33 affiliated unions petitioning USDOT for rulemaking requiring passenger face masks or coverings on DOT-regulated commercial transportation providers. Specifically, the letter highlights dangerous conditions for those who work in the passenger transportation industry on planes, buses, ferries, and trains.

To date, USDOT has supported Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that passengers should wear masks and has distributed nearly 100 million masks to passengers, but has stopped short of requiring masks.

Emerging evidence has shown that cloth face coverings over the nose and mouth reduce the spray of viral droplets, reducing the risk of viral transmission.

Willis’s letter states that a “patchwork of state or local mandates” have failed to achieve the necessary level of mask usage to properly address the national health crisis. He argues that the USDOT can apply uniform safety standards across transportation workplaces and can enforce those standards in ways that public or private transportation providers alone cannot.

Nationwide, over 150,000 people have died from COVID-19. According to the letter, every TTD union involved in passenger transportation has experienced infections and deaths among its workforce. While there is no aggregate list of infections or deaths among the passenger transportation workforce, a number of individual providers or institutions have reported this information. For example, over 1,000 of the Transportation Security Administration’s 50,000 workforce has tested positive for COVID-19, and at least six have died. As of late June, 132 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers in New York had died from the virus.

While passenger travel has decreased since the start of the pandemic, a considerable number of people must still use passenger transportation such as public transit to commute to essential jobs. Essential workers – healthcare employees, grocery workers, and other first responders – are crucial to keeping the economy afloat and to improving health and safety of others, and the passenger transportation workforce gets them to their destinations.

TTD’s statement is the latest in recent calls for more stringent COVID-19 regulations for the transportation industry. In May, the TTD member union Air Line Pilots Association, which as of May 10 had 300 virus cases and three deaths, called for the FAA to mandate compliance with CDC recommendations. ALPA pointed to inconsistent approaches to CDC’s guidelines among air carriers, whose trade group, Airlines for America, has announced voluntary health policies that include industry-wide requirements for passengers to wear masks, but leaves enforcement to each carrier.

For its part, Secretary Chao’s office supports the CDC’s guidance and has not endorsed new regulations for fear they might be difficult to undo once the pandemic passes. TTD’s call for regulations points to examples of regulatory and statutory authorities for worker protections across modal agencies, including FAA regulations on passengers traveling with communicable diseases and FRA and FTA’s requirements for passenger rail carriers to create employee hazard reduction plans.

(Ed. Note: The federal government’s legal authority to regulate the safety of interstate commerce (airlines, Amtrak) is much, much stronger than its legal authority to regulate intrastate commerce (local mass transportation). This is why the federal government does not actually regulate mass transit safety directly – USDOT only withholds federal transit funding from states that don’t do their own mass transit safety regulation and oversight. So the legal justifications for a federal mask mandate on airlines and Amtrak are fundamentally different from the legal justifications for a federal mask mandate on mass transit. This may be why Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced a bill yesterday with a mask mandate for airlines – but not for rail or transit.)

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