“We’re hidden,” said Kenneth Riley, the president of the local longshoremen’s union in Charleston, S.C. “But if you think some of the store shelves were empty as we got into this pandemic, let these ports shut down and see how empty they’ll be.”
Longshore work is exhausting, and often requires close contact with others. The trade is essential to the economy, with longshore workers serving as a crucial link between moving goods from a shipping vessel onto trucks and trains that send them to their final destination, experts said.
Over 95 percent of overseas trade for the United States flows through one of around 150 deepwater ports in the country, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The workers at highest risk of being exposed to the virus are deep sea longshoremen, who are primarily Black and do most of the work that requires the lifting and moving of goods, union officials noted.
Lashers, who take steel rods off containers so they can be lifted by crane operators, sweat and breathe heavily as they work in pairs side by side. Shuttle drivers, responsible for transporting their fellow longshoremen to and from either ends of a dock that can stretch for miles, spend their days packed in Ford Crown Victorias and school buses with other longshoremen.
“It’s very high risk,” said Gail Jackson, 45, a shuttle driver on the docks in Charleston who contracted the virus and spent weeks off the job. “There’s no way for us to be six feet distanced.”
The International Longshoremen’s Association, a union that represents about 65,000 longshore workers, has lobbied the federal government and state officials for support. In a letter in September to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, union officials asked that longshore workers be provided personal protective equipment, sanitizer and rapid coronavirus tests, saying the officials who operate the terminals where longshore workers operate have “provided no protective equipment to our members despite Covid-19 risks.”