‘Drenched in Fecal Matter’: Feds Probe Working Conditions at LaGuardia Cargo Company
Swissport employees allege they are exposed to health and safety dangers inside and outside planes.
Spewing lavatory waste and vehicles with bad brakes make their jobs at airline service company Swissport dangerous, said employees at a rally at LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday.
The allegations are also the subject of a recent complaint to federal regulators. Now
the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating Swissport, a company tasked with cleaning and loading passenger planes for Spirit Airlines and Air Canada at LaGuardia. One of the largest airline subcontractors in the industry, Swissport employs about 140 people at LaGuardia and thousands around the world.
Former Swissport worker Chad Infiesta said in an interview with THE CITY that faulty cleanup equipment sometimes led to disaster: He was once “drenched” with human waste after a hose used to empty a Spirit Airlines plane lavatory unexpectedly unlocked, ruining his uniform and work boots.
Infiesta, 36, also claims he was fired the day after he spoke out about the incident at a rally in December. He said that management repeatedly neglected to fix the lavatory hose before the incident despite repeated complaints from workers that it leaked and did not lock properly.
“Eventually, when this happened to me, there was nothing – there was no, you know, ‘Go home, we’re sorry about what happened,” he said, “Nothing from medical, you know God forbid something got in my mouth, nothing.” He also noted Swissport does not provide him or his coworkers with their own splash guards or face shield. Instead, he said, they are expected to share one single face shield on the job.
An OSHA spokesperson confirmed it is investigating complaints against Swissport at LaGuardia and three other regional airports. The union 32BJ-SEIU submitted the complaints on behalf of current and former Swissport workers at LaGuardia, and airports in Boston, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey who are seeking to unionize.
A spokesperson for Swissport did not directly address the workers’ allegations. “Contrary to these claims, Swissport fully complies with all applicable labor regulations, and provides competitive wages and benefits,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “In all the cities we operate in the United States, Swissport fully complies with operating permit requirements.”
A spokesperson for Spirit Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Air Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Swissport was cited nearly 20 times by OSHA investigations nationwide in the past decade for safety violations, from injuries to violations for the agency’s standards on heavy machinery and seatbelts. Last month, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health listed Swissport among the twelve most dangerous employers in the country, alongside Amazon, Norfolk Southern and Packer Sanitation Services, which was the subject of a national Department of Labor probe on migrant child labor.
Swissport workers at LaGuardia say they’re paid roughly $18.60 an hour to perform what they claim is two jobs in one for the company, alleging hazards both inside and outside the aircraft. They are hired to load and unload luggage in the belly of planes and also work inside planes, cleaning the main cabin, lavatories and galleys — and, they allege, not equipping them with gloves or other gear up to the task.
The complaint against the company at LaGuardia alleges multiple violations of safety regulations: “the company’s inadequate provision of PPE; company equipment’s inadequate fall protection; the company’s failure to communicate workplace chemical hazards such that workers are unaware of how to safely handle the chemicals they use at work; and the hazardous conditions of the company’s powered trucks,” according to a redacted version of the complaint reviewed by THE CITY.
Swissport does not provide employees with protective gear, ramp agent Jason Reed said, meaning he and others have had to spend about $400 out of pocket to secure knee pads, slip-proof shoes and noise-canceling earmuffs to protect themselves against occupational hazards.
Infiesta said crews of three people only have 10 minutes to clean and sanitize cabins, sweep up and vacuum the aisles, clean both galleys and bathrooms, and unload the lavatory waste. He said it was not uncommon to clean up dirty diapers, vomit, blood, and other human waste both inside the plane and while unloading the chute – all without proper face shields, sturdy rubber gloves or aprons. He added that workers are routinely blamed for flight delays when the cleanup extends beyond 10 minutes.
“There’s a lot of violations there that could have jeopardized the health and safety of a coworker or, you know, an aircraft could have gotten hit and caused serious damage, you know – and then it’s all our fault, even though it’s the equipment that’s not running right,” he said.
On the day the lavatory chute sprayed him, Infiesta “threw the uniform in the garbage” and borrowed another colleague’s clothes while he traveled to a different terminal at the airport to pick up a new uniform. He did not have time to take a shower before returning to work, he said.
The incident made him sick: “I definitely threw up,” he said.
‘SPRAYED with POOP’
Dozens of workers and supporters gathered outside LaGuardia’s Terminal A on Wednesday to publicly announce their complaints to regulators.
Some carried signs that read “Being SPRAYED with POOP was not in the job description!” while others proclaimed a resounding “NO to crappy working conditions.”
Sofia Brewster, a worker for a different company at JFK airport who led the rally in solidarity, noted how airport workers help “connect people worldwide and power our global economy” even in the absence of appropriate resources to keep them safe.
“These people do really important and tough jobs, and they can’t even really have the good equipment they need to do the jobs,” Brewster said.
Reed, 26, said he was hired as a ramp agent in October 2022. Most of the training took place virtually, he told THE CITY.
On the job, he has encountered what he called “faulty equipment,” including tug vehicles that haul airplanes off the gate that stopped working mid-job— with its battery dead transmission fluid leaking.
Other times, he felt “unsafe” while handling a tube that transports human waste from the airplane lavatory onto a truck — since the hose isn’t always secured even when a click indicates that it’s properly in place.
“Don’t trust that click,” Reed said. “You got to tug it a few times, make sure there’s no leaks or it doesn’t pull off. Because if it does, guess what? You’re gonna have human waste on you.”
That’s what happened to Infiesta, who assured in a separate interview with THE CITY that he heard the hose click before it unexpectedly unlocked, spraying him with waste.
The ladders that ramp agents use to get to the lavatory tube isn’t “steady” either, Rodriguez added.
Sticky situations often ensue when a gust of wind strikes, another ramp agent, 27-year-old Jonathan Rodriguez, said at the rally.
“There’s drips that come off the aircraft and it usually spills on us,” Rodriguez said, as fellow workers booed in sympathy. “And most of the time we have to work with them on ourselves till the end of the shift. They don’t provide us extra T-shirts. They don’t provide us with anything.”