June 09, 2020

Chair DeFazio Statement from Hearing on Impacts to Transportation Workers Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) during today’s hearing titled: “On the Front Lines: The Impacts of COVID-19 on Transportation Workers.” 

Good afternoon and welcome. I want to begin today’s hearing by recognizing the tragedy of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white Minneapolis, MN police officer fifteen days ago. Our nation watched his brutal murder in horror, a murder perpetrated by the very men sworn to protect and serve their communities. George Floyd’s name joins an ever-growing list of Black and brown individuals who have been victim to police brutality and systemic racism in policing.

George Floyd’s murder and those of Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are gasping reminders of the original sins of our nation that go back over 400 years. George, Breonna, and Ahmaud’s lives were taken violently because of the systemic failures of our nation. This is wrong. This is shameful. This is not what America should be, and we will not go back. We have had enough.

In the two weeks since Mr. Floyd’s murder, thousands of Americans have peacefully assembled in all 50 states to petition their government for change. My hometown, which has a proud tradition of civic participation and free speech expression, saw the largest protest in our history last week, as residents rose up in response to these shameful racist acts and demanded immediate justice and reform. 

The episodes of brutality by local police across the country and President Trump’s ordered assault on peaceful protestors - to score a photo op - underscore the urgent necessity for reforms in our criminal justice system. My colleagues and I will make it absolutely clear to African-Americans and all victims of police brutality that we hear your pain, we mourn with you. And importantly, we will not sit idly by and let these injustices persist. 

In the coming days, the Judiciary Committee will consider comprehensive legislation to reform our police departments, limiting the transfer of weapons of war to local police, and eliminate the qualified immunity doctrine that has indemnified law enforcement officers from the consequences of the violent crimes they’ve committed against the public they serve. Let there finally be justice and dignity for George Floyd and the countless others who lost their lives because of our past failures.

It is against this somber backdrop that we join you today under further extraordinary circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of American life, shuttering restaurants, cancelling sporting events, and killing more than 100,000 Americans, which has disproportionately impacted African-American and Hispanic communities across the country.  Even the United States Congress has been impacted, as we are joining you live from the first ever hybrid virtual and in-person hearing in our Committee’s history. 

While the coronavirus has left many industries reeling, few have been as hard hit as the transportation industry. Providing an essential service, transportation workers have continued to show up to work driving buses and trains, caring for passengers on airplanes, moving freight, and repairing roads and bridges.

While many of us have had the great privilege of being able to work from home, transportation workers have not. They continue showing up to work, often without adequate PPE, to make sure that our economy functions and we have access to the goods, services, and supplies that we need. When these workers go out to serve the public, they don’t know what they’ll be exposed to and if they’ll endanger their family when they come home each night. 

Truck drivers played a vital role in the early response to COVID-19, keeping grocery stores stocked with supplies and transporting PPE and other medical equipment across the country. All the while, rest stops and restaurants across the country were closing, increasing the discomfort and challenge of doing an already difficult job.

American mariners carrying food and supplies to troops stationed abroad have also been caught in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic. As countries across the world shut their borders, mariners participating in the Maritime Security Program have been unable to leave their ships at international ports of call and replacement crews have been unable to provide relief due to travel bans domestically and abroad. 

The global pandemic has also left the aviation industry facing the greatest financial crisis it has ever seen, and passenger demand for air travel isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. While much of the attention has been focused on air carriers, more than 750,000 Americans are employed by passenger and cargo airlines, the majority of whom are facing furlough and layoff threats in the near future. 

I was proud to champion language in the CARES Act to preserve airline and airline contractor jobs by creating the Payroll Support Program. I wasn’t going to allow us to make the same mistakes we made after 9/11 when Congress bailed out the airlines, but the Bush administration required cuts to employee pay and benefits, including the ravaging of employee pensions while CEOs got fat bonuses and golden parachutes. We were able to guarantee rank and file employees job protections along with no reductions to their rate of pay and benefits packages through the end of September. And I will continue to fight to protect these jobs.

While air travel is trickling back up, flight attendants, pilots, gate agents, and service workers face a growing number of travelers who are not required under Federal law to wear masks, have not been screened for the virus, and are unable or unwilling to follow social distancing precautions both in the air and on the ground. Airlines have taken a patchwork approach to worker and passenger safety, with some allowing full planes to fly six-hour transcontinental journeys. Even worse, some airlines attempted to profit off of the public health crisis. Frontier Airlines began charging customers to leave an empty seat between them and other passengers until I publicly shamed them into changing their egregious policy.

Although the airlines require facemasks, the lack of a Federal mandate on protective equipment and physical distancing on board leaves flight attendants with little enforcement and greater personal risk. The FAA has refused to intervene, and Secretary Chao recently dismissed public health and safety as merely a “labor-management” issue.

But it’s not just aviation employees who are forced to work in unsafe environments. Across the board, Federal agencies have refused to issue mandatory guidance protecting workers and the general public, instead relying on voluntary recommendations that offer little practical guidance other than suggesting that agencies develop rules to keep their employees safe without even collecting best practices from different sectors.

Is that the best that our Federal government can do? Encourage agencies to adopt non-specific measures on social distancing and PPE? We employ one of the greatest public health research bodies on Earth, and all we can do is vague voluntary guidance? Our transportation workers are putting their lives on the line to preserve access to health care, supplies, jobs, and the global economy. They deserve better, and I hope we can deliver that for them. 

So, before I run out of time, I want to say to our witnesses, and to your brothers and sisters in the field, thank you. Your sacrifices on behalf of our country are greatly appreciated, and we know the risk you take on our behalf.