The Terrible Cost of Ignoring Workplace Health and Safety

By Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA President

In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Despite warnings from the New York Board of Sanitary Control, the garment manufacturer had continued to supply only one fire escape when three were necessary and ignore other safety violations. The inferno that ensued more than a century ago and cost 146 workers their lives was sadly preventable, yet many of the same attitudes toward worker safety still exist today.

A safe workplace lies at the core of the dignity of work. During the past weeks, ALPA has seized a leadership role among other labor unions, including the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, by insisting that workers collectively demand to be respected. To that end, our union continues to call on government leaders to provide a safe and healthy workplace for our pilots. In a letter to President Trump, Speaker Pelosi, and Leader McConnell, we urged U.S. government leaders to protect pilots’ health in the next phase of the federal relief and worker protection legislation by mandating that airlines follow the FAA-issued Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 20009, which builds on the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID-19 employee exposure notification and workplace disinfection with approved disinfectants.

  • providing pilots with access to and policy guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment while working on the flight deck.
  • clarifying that airline flight crews are essential employees and should have access to priority COVID-19 testing.

This letter should never have been necessary. The FAA had the opportunity to protect pilots’ health in its recent SAFO 20009, but the regulator refused to require that U.S. airlines meet CDC public-health guidelines for responding to the pandemic. The regulator’s decision to delegate its authority with the hope that companies will do the right thing is unacceptable. To understand why, one need only look to ALPA’s recent letter to Airlines for America, the Regional Airline Association, the National Air Carrier Association, and the Cargo Airline Association. In the communication, we urged the organizations and the airlines they represent to pledge to simply comply with the SAFO. Not one airline or trade association has joined our pledge.

ALPA’s focus now is on doing all we can to prevent further loss of life, stop the spread of the disease, and protect pilots’ jobs. As the U.S. and Canadian governments continue to explore additional legislative measures to address the economic effects of the pandemic, our union will continue to call for greater labor protections for pilots and other workers.

In the United States, we’re asking Congress to, at a minimum, make certain that

  • the U.S. bankruptcy code isn’t used to reject or abrogate any collective bargaining agreement by any airline that receives federal financial assistance.
  • government agencies are precluded from conditioning loans on changes to pay, terms, and conditions of employment until the exhaustion of the loans.
  • furloughed pilots remain on employer health care at active-employee rates.
  • federal financial assistance airlines receive continues to flow exclusively to employee payroll and benefits until it’s exhausted.

Capt. Tim Perry, ALPA Canada president, is in ongoing and direct contact with the offices of the minister of Finance and minister of Transport as they continue to evaluate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on all industries and citizens across Canada.

It’s important to remember that many of the frustrations we feel today are the same ones that created the birth of the union movement. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the labor movement grew to allow workers to build a legacy of fire safety, factory inspections, and workplace sanitation rules that contributed to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

ALPA members recognize that it’s now our time to fight for workers’ health, safety, and labor rights. We owe it to those who came before us and to those who will follow to give the most that we can. As union pilots, we know we can rely on each other, our unity, and our ALPA team. Together, we’ll fight—and prevail—in gaining the necessary protections to keep ourselves healthy, safeguard the public we serve, and deliver on the promise of a stronger airline industry.