‘Nowhere to escape’: Frontline workers contend with wildfire smoke, face repeat of pandemic divide

(NEW YORK) — As wildfire smoke bathed New York City in fumes on Wednesday afternoon, UPS driver Matt Leichenger said he suffered a wave of nausea in the back of his truck with hardly anything he could do about it.

“There’s nowhere you can escape to,” Leichenger told ABC News. “Unless you literally stop working and go inside. If you do that, it prolongs your day.”

Leichenger, who worked a 12-hour shift in Brooklyn that involved more than 100 stops, said he couldn’t keep the doors of the truck closed due to a lack of air conditioning. The experience reminded him of delivering during the pandemic, he said.

“You can’t outscore delivery work; you can’t do it remotely,” he said. “As we see climate events happening, we’re going to be on the frontlines of that, too.”

In a statement, UPS told ABC News that the company is “working on a variety of immediate actions, including the speedy distribution of masks for our employees in affected areas.”

“The well-being and safety of UPSers is our number one priority,” the statement added. “We are following developments closely and will continue to be in close contact with our people as the situation evolves.”

Tens of thousands of delivery workers carry items across New York City each day, alongside a host of employees in other outdoor trades like construction. Those workers join more than 300,000 retail employees who risk exposure to smoke that wafts through open doorways.

The threat faced by such workers contrasts with the relative safety of office employees capable of working from home, recreating a divide that emerged during the pandemic, Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York.

“Because of the nature of certain people’s jobs, they simply need to be outside,” he said. “It highlights the disparity.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index, or AQI, which ranges from 0 to 500 with escalating health risk as it goes higher, reached over 400 in New York City on Wednesday. As of Thursday afternoon, the AQI registered at 178. Levels under 100 are considered safe.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday extended an air quality health advisory until Friday night, urging people to limit their time outdoors and, when necessary, wear a mask.

“Much of the guidance being issued has not been adequate for workers who are being exposed to wildfire smoke all day,” the non-profit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health said on Thursday.

“For those employers who are forcing their workers on the job when the work is not essential,” the group added. “We need to do better.”

Jordan Pollack, an employee at a Trader Joe’s in lower Manhattan, said early Wednesday afternoon she noticed that the basement-level store had begun to smell smoky.

“The air was just flowing through the automatic doors when they were opening and closing,” she said. “It was getting stuck in the basement.”

While lifting heavy boxes in the freezer section, Pollack said she felt lightheaded and short of breath, she said.

“It felt very apocalyptic,” she added.

She and some coworkers asked the managers if they could leave early with a full day’s pay, she said; but the managers declined. Ultimately, at around 5 p.m., 12 of the 20 employees on duty walked out in protest, she said.

In a statement, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson affirmed the company’s commitment to worker safety.

“Nothing is more important at Trader Joe’s than the safety of our Crew Members and customers. Trader Joe’s stores, including Essex Crossing, have high-quality air filtration systems, which are regularly serviced to ensure optimal operation,” the spokesperson said.

“Yesterday a few Crew Members indicated they were uncomfortable completing their scheduled shifts. As is our normal practice, any Crew Member wanting to go home was welcome to do so,” the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile, Pollack said she does not fault coworkers who declined to walk out.

“Most people can’t afford to take that risk,” she said. “They could have no choice to come into work under these conditions because otherwise they won’t be able to pay rent.”

“In the immediate present, that seems much more scary than the fact that your lungs are getting permanently damaged,” she added.

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