- Associated Press
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A union representing catering workers wants to shut down a United Airlines facility in New Jersey, saying that more than 40 workers have contracted the new coronavirus and four have died.

Before the virus outbreak caused United to drastically cut flights, about 1,000 people at the facility at Newark Liberty International Airport worked for United, preparing food and drinks and removing garbage from planes.

Because of United’s drastic cuts in flying - it is operating only about 10% of its normal flights in May - only about 100 people currently work in the facility, according to the union, Unite Here.

The union and workers who talked to The Associated Press acknowledged that they aren’t sure how they contracted the virus, although some believe it happened at work.

Vicky Zavala, a transportation coordinator who has worked at the kitchen for 21 years, recalled going all the way to the back of a departing plane in early April to check galley supplies.

“There were already passengers sitting. I saw too many people without masks, it was scary,” she said. Zavala, her mother and her daughter, who all live together, tested posted for the coronavirus. All have recovered.

United did not dispute the union’s numbers about illnesses and deaths. The kitchen is located just outside New York City, in the heart of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. There have been more than 140,000 reported cases and about 9,500 deaths in New Jersey, second only to New York in both categories, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Workers said conditions including the supply of face masks and gloves have improved since the early days of the virus outbreak in March.

United Airlines said it has complied with many requests made by a worker-safety committee at the kitchen. Airline spokeswoman Rachael Rivas said that since mid-March, the facility has been disinfected daily, with some common areas cleaned every two hours. She said workers are tested for fever, and there are social-distancing rules.

The airline has resisted the union’s call to close the kitchen, saying that current disinfection measures are adequate.

The union also wants workers to get N95 respirators when they are more widely available, and to be tested three times a week for the virus.

“Everyone is scared,” said Karen Cortez, who prepares galley carts in the kitchen and recently returned to work after recovering from COVID-19. “I don’t want to get sick again, and I don’t want to be on edge all the time.”

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