More than a dozen employees working for a company that provides aircraft cabin cleaners and supplies for planes at SFO have tested positive for coronavirus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFO contractor downplays scale of COVID-19 outbreak

Company failed to inform workers, airport as 10 people tested positive within three week period

During the coronavirus crisis, much has been made of protecting frontline workers like Luisa Cancio, 63, who works for a contractor at San Francisco International Airport preparing blankets, pillows and other onboard amenities for travelers.

Her employer ABM Aviation, a facility services provider at roughly 75 airports worldwide, including SFO, submitted to airport leadership a health and safety plan detailing its prevention strategies, adherence to all public health guidelines and a process for team member notification should there be a known or suspected case of the coronavirus.

But a recent outbreak at ABM and a subsequent failure by the company to report its scale to employees and airport leadership alike has exposed a lack of transparency and left some workers feeling that perhaps their safety isn’t a primary concern.

It’s also left vulnerable workers like Cancio afraid.

“We need to survive, especially now. I don’t want to live outside,” she said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to depend on the government. I’m trying to support myself so I can support my daughters.”

The outbreak

Most ABM employees at San Francisco’s airport work as cabin cleaners or in the process center, where they prepare supplies such as pillows, blankets, first-class kits and, now, face masks for passengers.

Ten ABM employees tested positive for COVID-19 between August 23 and September 11, and an additional three tested positive in earlier months, Doug Yakel, SFO spokesperson, confirmed to the SF Examiner.

ABM refused to confirm the case count with the Examiner despite repeated inquiries.

Instead, a company spokesperson only offered in mid-September that there had been “suspected or known cases of COVID-19 among team members, as there have been in almost all workplaces and communities” nationwide, and cited privacy concerns as reason not to provide specifics.

ABM knew of the first positive case in the most recent outbreak as early as August 24, when a company-wide letter, obtained by the Examiner, was sent to employees.

It alerted workers that one team member had tested positive for COVID-19 at the airport testing facility the day before, and that the individual hadn’t been on the job site since August 20.

Though the letter stated the worker was in self-quarantine at home, it did not specify which unit the individual was in or provide instructions for those who might have worked alongside this person.

Rather, the guidance was to focus on prevention by washing hands, sanitizing surfaces, maintaining social distance, wearing a mask and staying home, if sick.

“If we learn any additional details, we will let you know,” it said.

Conversations with numerous ABM employees, however, found that management did not provide the promised additional details to staff, even as the number of COVID-19-positive workers grew within company ranks.

Workers said they hadn’t received any additional memos from executives after the first case, and described management’s strategy as focused on prevention tactics as opposed to facilitating self-quarantine for those who could’ve been exposed.

ABM did not respond to requests for comment to counter this account.

SFO kept in the dark

ABM didn’t only fail to inform workers of the ballooning case count, it also withheld the truth from airport leadership, despite a mandate from SFO that each of its contractors notify leadership of any positive cases.

Yakel told the Examiner on September 11 that SFO had only been made aware of one positive case at ABM. Later that month, he confirmed the 13 total cases, reiterating the airport had not been made aware of the significant uptick in real time.

ABM works with four airlines at SFO, according to Yakel, but its biggest contract is with United Airlines.

A spokesperson for the airline emphasized the outbreak is not among its own employees, and said United has prioritized creating a safe work environment for its own workers as well as those of airport authorities and business partners since the beginning of the pandemic.

Given its geographic location in San Mateo County, SFO falls under the jurisdiction of the San Mateo County Department of Health for the purpose of COVID-19 issues.

Preston Merchant, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said he couldn’t comment on individual cases, but said any local employer that experienced an outbreak would be required to report it to health officials and work with them to execute contact investigation, as needed.

ABM’s cabin cleaners work in fairly close proximity. They travel in groups of three to five people from the warehouse, where they store cleaning supplies and other items, to the airport grounds by van, where they then hop from gate to gate to actually clean the planes. They aren’t supposed to come into contact with passengers or airline crew members.

Processing center workers are able to spread out more while on the job, although they do come into contact occasionally with the cabin cleaners when they swing by at the start or finish of their shift.

The outbreak started in August within the cabin cleaner division, but it ultimately migrated to the process center as well.

ABM wouldn’t provide extensive details on its safety protocols, other than to say it follows “all state or local mandates,” provides personal protective equipment and training to workers and follows advice of an an expert-driven advisory council.

It has also issued educational materials such as brochures and flyers to employees.

Contact tracing “would not be an official function of a business” because it requires training from the Department of Health, according to an ABM spokesperson, but the company would notify any possibly exposed team members should an employee test positive for the coronavirus.

None of the workers the Examiner spoke to said they’d been informed directly that colleagues had tested positive after the August 24 memo. Instead, they noticed a number of individuals simply stopped showing up for work for around two weeks, and the rumors took off.

“It’s not safe. I feel nervous and not safe,” one cabin cleaner told the Examiner in early September on the condition of anonymity.

The cabin cleaner also said “most of us are afraid to talk,” in reference to reticence among employees to raise safety concerns with management for fear of retribution such as suspension from work.

The letter sent from ABM leadership to workers in August included directions to stay quiet if contacted by the press, instructing them to direct any inquiries to their communications email account.

“It’s really difficult for us. I’m not just talking for myself, but also for my co-workers, too,” this employee said of fears of contracting COVID-19. “We have families, children, elderly parents.”

Contractor responsibility

The employment landscape at SFO is fairly complicated.

There’s the airport itself, the airlines, the retail and dining establishments and the numerous contractors that handle everything from security and baggage claim to aircraft catering and maintenance, often starting at warehouses off the grounds and traveling to the gates. Each of those companies employ their own staff.

Since the pandemic’s start, it’s been largely incumbent upon each of the companies to independently comply with “all local, state and federal requirements” and to establish “their own systems to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace,” according to Yakel, who added there’s an SFO mandate that any employee working on site must wear a face mask.

Many employees at ABM are represented by SEIU-United Service Workers West, a statewide union that represents more than 40,000 service industry workers.

Amelia Bunch, the union’s Northern California Airports Coordinator, has been trying to get information from ABM and the cadre of agencies tangentially responsible for airport worker wellbeing for weeks.

Bunch said workers have come to her with whispers of new cases regularly since August, but that she’s been bounced from spokesperson to spokesperson as she’s sought confirmation.

She was even kicked to ABM’s legal counsel, who told her in an email obtained by the Examiner that the company did “not understand the relevance” of her inquiries for specifics on case count, timing and shift assignments of positive workers.

Though ABM told Bunch it had provided “ongoing written notices” to the union, Bunch said she never received one, and ABM did not respond to request for comment with details of its correspondence.

Consequences to go-it-alone

The go-it-alone approach to ensuring the protection of workers seems to be falling short, and SFO leadership has said there could be consequences for companies such as ABM who don’t meet the mark.

Airport Director Ivan C. Satero told ABM’s Vice President of Service Delivery Brian Keene the outbreak suggested the company “may not be appropriately managing the risk of transmission among its staff” and “may not be following its own precautions” that it created in the safety plan submitted to SFO in March, according to a letter dated September 25 obtained by the Examiner.

Satero called the revelation “very concerning” and informed Keene that airport staff would be conducting more regular inspections, asking ABM to re-evaluate its safety plan and possibly carrying out a “comprehensive audit and examination of all ABM’s operations under permit,” the cost of which would be reimbursed by the company.

Even though ABM is now under the microscope from airport management, the workers are still largely left to fend for themselves in the interim.

“Airport workers are on the frontlines of the pandemic, which is scary. But it’s important to know that these working conditions are not inevitable,” Bunch said. “What is truly scary is working for an employer who refuses to inform workers when they have been exposed to COVID-19 and who ignores basic requests for safety improvements. That is not acceptable.”

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