Workers Organize for Better Conditions After Air Quality Plummets

As smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed much of the East Coast last week and air quality worsened, some workers organized to try and stay safe.

Paige Oamek and Rohan Montgomery

Smoke from Canadian wildfires over New York City on June 7, 2023. Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Delilah Rivera went to work her early morning shift at Starbucks in Hamilton, New Jersey, on Wednesday like she regularly does, but soon noticed her asthma getting significantly worse. She asked her manager to close the store or shut down the drive-through, where the smoky air would enter, but says they refused.

So Rivera and her colleagues — who are unionized with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) — took action. On Thursday, she says they delivered a letter to their manager, alleging that their safety [had] been ignored in favor of keeping the drive-through open” and demanding that their manager protect [their] employees” by either closing the drive-through or providing them with proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The next morning, Rivera says they were provided N95 respirators and she was allowed to work away from the drive-through window.

Rivera and her colleagues were not alone. On Wednesday, Sarah Moore went to work at her Starbucks store in Buffalo — also unionized with SBWU — and after less than two hours working at the open drive-through window — which she says was broken and couldn’t be closed between customers — tells In These Times that her eyes were burning,” her throat was burning,” and it was hard to talk.”

Even though the district manager came to the store to check that everything was up to standard, Moore says she wasn’t told anything about the hazardous air quality by the company until near the end of her shift. Workers were simply told to wear masks — but she says the store didn’t have any.

Just saying, Sorry guys, fend for yourselves! Maybe try a mask.’ It’s not enough,” Moore says. I mean, the sky is yellow. That’s not a healthy condition for anyone to be in.”

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Starbucks did not return a request for comment about any of these issues.

On Monday, more smoke from hundreds of Canadian wildfires began drifting down and covering much of the East Coast. Three days later, Heatmap reported that almost one in five Americans were exposed to levels of soot and ash five times what the World Health Organization considers safe. 

Anything above 300 on the Air Quality Index scale is hazardous; multiple cities on the East Coast reached well above 400, the upper end of the scale. Millions of workers — many of whom received no advance warning from employers or governmental agencies — woke up and went about their lives as normal, only to find themselves laboring in what is dangerous, smoky air. Even short-term exposure to air quality this poor is highly problematic, but it’s especially harmful to those with preexisting conditions like asthma. 

As Luis Feliz Leon first reported in Labor Notes on Thursday, conditions were especially hazardous for New York City’s nearly 65,000 gig delivery food workers, who as contractors find themselves without a direct employer to ask for PPE or better working conditions from.

The companies classify the workers as independent contractors and offload all the costs of the job onto the workers themselves,” he wrote. They also punt responsibility for the health and safety of workers.”

In addition to those working outside, each time a door or window opens for a customer, it lets the thick air inside. As the smog lingered and continued to spread around the country, many workers looked to their unions and organized together to keep themselves and their coworkers safe.

New York City on June 7, 2023. Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Across the internet and around the East Coast, workers decried the situation and some asked for advice.

Literally smells like a campfire inside my workplace right now. It’s bad,” one commenter wrote on Reddit. Anyone else feel nauseous from the smoke? … I was feeling lightheaded and queasy,” wrote another. Today I was working outside all day for work. The Air Quality Index was above 300 and hazardous. Is my employer required to pay us hazardous pay?” asked another. Some offered advice such as avoiding strenuous activities or explained how to build Do-It-Yourself air filters. One person joked: Wear your N95 they gave you two years ago and expect you to still have.”

“Literally smells like a campfire inside my workplace right now. It's bad,” one commenter wrote on Reddit. “Anyone else feel nauseous from the smoke?... I was feeling lightheaded and queasy,” wrote another. “Today I was working outside all day for work. The Air Quality Index was above 300 and hazardous. Is my employer required to pay us hazardous pay?” asked another.

In New York, unionized workers at REI’s SoHo store announced they had successfully pressured management to close” the store on Wednesday. However, according to an Instagram post from REI Union SoHo, it wasn’t until the AQI scale passed 400 — well above hazardous — that REI agreed to close while still paying employees in full for the day. Before that,” according to the post, they held our reduced wages over our heads, forcing workers to choose between our own safety and our livelihoods.”

This is a stark reminder,” the post concluded, that direct action gets the goods — and that we, the union, keep us safe.”

At the Trader Joe’s Essex Crossing store, unionized workers also asked management to close the store on Wednesday, according to Jordan Pollack, who has worked there for almost a year. Pollack tells In These Times that despite wearing a mask, they began to notice the air becoming smoky.

Pollack says they ran and bought some masks for their co-workers, and by their lunch break the AQI was over 300. They said that repeated attempts to convince management it was too dangerous to be working were met with accusations of sparking panic and an offer to go home — without pay.

“This is a stark reminder,” the post concluded, “that direct action gets the goods—and that we, the union, keep us safe.”

I was gaslit,” Pollack says. Managers and maybe a few coworkers were not wearing any masks. It was as if there was this complete denial of the world being apocalyptic — that a huge climate catastrophe could actually affect working conditions.”

Eventually, Pollack says, 12 of the crew of roughly 20 working that day walked out. 

Pollack wonders why workers weren’t notified or protected before the air quality got so bad. One justification managers used to avoid closing the store, they say, was that the New York government hadn’t issued a state of emergency. Why were no precautions taken before then?” they ask. Why did it take us feeling like the world was ending … for anyone to be like, Oh, this is something we need to respond to?’ Are we living in completely different worlds right now?”

Both Trader Joe’s and REI’s union efforts were aided by the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), a project of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) to keep workers safe during the Covid-19 pandemic. EWOC is a distributed grassroots organizing program that provides training and support to workers hoping to organize a union or simply stand up against unfair conditions on the job. 

New York City issued an air quality health advisory, not a state of emergency, Tuesday afternoon, but it wasn’t until Wednesday morning — when air quality was already diminishing to historic levels — that New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul addressed reporters and residents about the crisis. At a press conference, Adams claimed there is no blueprint or playbook” for this unprecedented” event. 

Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation first raised concerns about air pollution from the fires on June 1.

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By Wednesday afternoon, the AQI index in New York City spiked past 400 out of 500 — the highest ever recorded in the city, according to FOX Weather’s analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Adams and Hochul told vulnerable New Yorkers to stay inside.

On Wednesday evening, as the sky turned from orange back to gray, Hochul tweeted out that one million masks would be made available across the state Thursday morning to pick up from select locations. 

That same night, DSA members hopped on an emergency meeting to develop a plan to help support New York workers. 

Had the state responded effectively to the ongoing pandemic, we would not have had to organize our volunteer distribution,” NYC-DSA co-chairs Jeremy Cohan and Jaslin Kaur said in a statement. This is a climate crisis, a public health crisis, a labor crisis — a crisis of capitalism.” 

Volunteers delivered thousands of N95 masks to workers and unions: 4,000 to Teamsters Local 804 (which represents UPS workers), 6,000 to Amazon Labor Union, 900 to Los Deliveristas delivery workers, 200 to Trader Joes United, 300 to housing authority residents, and more than 700 to workers at restaurants, Starbucks stores, nail salons and ghost kitchens.

“This is a climate crisis, a public health crisis, a labor crisis—a crisis of capitalism.”

Upstate, near Rochester, organizers with the United Farm Workers distributed respirator masks to crews who had not been warned about the air quality and were laboring without PPE. This is horrifyingly a normal occurrence for agriculture workers; in California, an unofficial survey done in 2020 found that 92% of workers said they had not received N95 masks during wildfires in that state. 

Exposure to wildfire smoke has been shown to increase rates of chronic respiratory and heart diseases. Individuals exposed to smoke without protective equipment risk lifelong effects — wildfire smoke is perhaps 10 times more harmful than other sources of air pollution.

Those on the east coast, including Adams, who say there is no precedent for this situation are somehow forgetting that similar events happen all the time on the west coast.

In California, this has happened before,” says Matt Leichenger, a UPS driver and member of Teamsters Local 804. The company should know how to respond.” He says when it’s raining, the company often sends notifications to delivery drivers to remind them to increase the distance they are following other cars to avoid accidents.

But instead, he says, there was radio silence” from UPS on Wednesday.

“In California, this has happened before,” says Matt Leichenger, a UPS driver and member of Teamsters Local 804.

That day on his delivery route in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he found he was met with a particular kindness and appreciation from customers. When he pulled over to pick up a mask from a bodega, the clerk urged him to just take it. 

The bodega gives out free masks and my multibillion-dollar employer doesn’t,” Leichenger laments.

In a statement emailed to In These Times, UPS said that they were closely tracking this rapidly-developing situation of smoke from Canadian wildfires” and that the wellbeing and safety of UPSers is our number one priority.”

We are working on a variety of immediate actions. This includes the speedy distribution of masks for our employees in affected areas,” the statement read. We are talking with our drivers and workers in affected areas to review CDC guidelines and local guidance from elected officials. We are following developments closely and will continue to be in close contact with our people as the situation evolves.”

New York City on June 7, 2023. Photo by Eren Abdullahogullari/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

REI, Trader Joe’s and Mayor Adams did not return requests for comment.

On Thursday morning Leichenger, with the help of other Local 804 organizers and DSA, transformed their already slated UPS strike authorization vote rally into a mask distribution event. This is what socialism looks like in a capitalist world,” he says. Socialists organize solutions with fewer resources than the corporations.” 

In New York and elsewhere, the smog began to subside on Friday evening.

“This is what socialism looks like in a capitalist world,” he says. “Socialists organize solutions with fewer resources than the corporations.”

Meanwhile, Steve Milloy, former tobacco industry lobbyist and a senior policy fellow of the Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a Koch-funded Right-wing think-tank that has fought greenhouse gas regulation, went on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle to declare that this has nothing to do with climate.” He also went on to say wildfire and particulate matter are innocuous. This doesn’t kill anybody, this doesn’t make anybody cough, this is not a health event,” he said.

Host Laura Ingraham laughed: Steve, we’re back at the masks.”

Milloy’s claims are false: pm2.5 particles, found in wildfire smoke, are particularly dangerous.

Many of the workers interviewed for this article say they only want something simple from their companies.

If I could say one thing,” Rivera, the Starbucks barista from New Jersey, concludes, it would be to listen to us.”

I wake up at 3:30 in the morning,” she says. I work hard at my job. I just want to be respected.”

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Paige Oamek is a writer and fact-checker based in New York. Their writing appears in The Nation, The American Prospect and elsewhere.

Rohan Montgomery is a former fact-checker and intern at In These Times. He previously worked for The New Republic, and his work has also appeared in the BBC. He tweets @RohanMontroro.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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