Airport workers on the frontlines, whether they are contracted workers or not, say baseline wage and benefit standards should be mandated for any airport that receives federal funding.
Three airport service workers unions: the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Communications Workers of America (CWA) and UNITE HERE are calling for a federal solution to establish uniform standards by extending the Service Contract Act’s wage and healthcare supplement to airports that receive federal dollars.
The unions point out that airport workers joined with other aviation unions in supporting the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan and other relief plans that the unions say largely covered airlines' payroll costs to support the industry through the crisis. They say airlines received $54 billion during the pandemic, and regularly receive billions of dollars through public subsidies, but wage and benefits standards for airport service workers remain low.
On Thursday, the unions hosted a virtual roundtable with airport service workers and members of the House and Senate appropriations committees. Airport service workers include cabin cleaners, wheelchair agents, catering workers, customer service agents and others.
“Our job is people,” Rhiannah Ford, a server at Fort Lauderdale International Airport, said. “We deal with hospitality. Your bags are handled with care. Your grandmother is handled with care, as she is wheeled to her gate. Your health is handled with care when we clean the bathrooms. Your food is handled with care.”
As a server, she said her job is people and making them happy.
“And I think people forget that I’m a people, too,” she said.
32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg said airline executives recognize the significance of contracted service workers when they need someone to blame for delays and cancellations. But, he said they do not acknowledge their importance when comes to wages and benefits. “They refuse to acknowledge the negative impact that low wages and paltry benefits have on hiring and retaining staff,” he said.
While some invest in training and experienced workers, he said there are some in the industry that seem to have no standards other than the federal minimum wage.
“We are asking you to make a commitment to fairness and to ensure that any airport that receives federal investment provides workers a living wage, access to adequate health care and paid time off,” he said to the members of Congress. “Establishing a uniform, nationwide floor with respect to wages and benefits would strengthen the security of our aviation infrastructure by reducing turnover and increasing trained frontline workers. It would also be life-changing for this workforce, the majority of which are people of color, immigrants and women.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said, “There’s no reason why federal dollars should be used to pay poverty wages.”
Murphy said there is significant money in the infrastructure bill for airports and there has been significant money throughout the pandemic for airlines.
“It makes no sense for us to ask taxpayers to foot the bill to save airports and airlines but not to save the families that are working there,” he said.
Paying a fair wage is not only the right thing to do for the public-facing component of the airport, he said it’s also good for local economies.
Anjanette Reyes, a wheelchair attendant in Orlando for an airline contractor, loves her job and views it as “a calling.”
“I like helping seniors and people with disabilities,” she said. “We have a big responsibility in making sure they safe.”
She said she is paid $7.98 an hour plus tips, which might be $20 a day or nothing at all.
“We’re short-staffed right now because people don’t want to risk their lives working at the airport for such low pay and no benefits. My co-workers are still getting sick because of the virus (coronavirus).”
She said a gate assistant was out sick and unpaid for a month.
“My co-workers and I are struggling, running back and forth between passengers,” she said. “Some people are pushing two people at the same time.”
Reyes, who said she hasn’t taken a vacation in three years, said, “I don’t have any more of myself to give. But this is America.” She paused, as she became visibly emotional. “We’re supposed to strive for better. Instead, frontline workers like me are hurting and barely surviving. We want to be treated like a human being. We deserve sick days and healthcare. We deserve to be paid for our hard work and for our sacrifice.”
Dayshon Beeks, a 32BJ member and a lift truck driver at Newark Liberty International Airport, said, “The past year and a half have been hard. We have dealt with illness, layoffs, schedule changes, and some of us had to deal with the death of loved ones.”
But, he said Sept. 1 was a good day for workers at Newark Liberty. New Jersey’s Healthy Terminals Act (HTA) went into effect, which creates new minimum wage and benefits requirements for certain Newark Liberty International Airport workers. A new contract under HTA for Beeks meant he finally got health insurance – and for the first time in 10 years – glasses, and a huge weight lifted off his shoulders.
“Even though we are doing better in New Jersey, the fight is not over,” he said. “We feel that any airport that receives federal money must require all airlines and their contractors to pay a living wage, provide healthcare sick days and paid time off.”
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, acknowledged, “Airport workers have put themselves at especially great risk, whether it’s wheelchair operators, folks who are sanitizing terminals, cleaning cabins, keep concessions open, essentially allowing air travel to continue even on the more limited basis that it did during the pandemic. You were the folks right there on the frontlines putting yourselves at risk. At the same time, because of the drop-off in travel, many of you were also hit by furloughs and layoffs in much greater numbers than in many other sectors.”
One in three airline workers was furloughed before federal aid came, he said.
“We recognize there’s a lot more to do,” Van Hollen said. “We had to respond to the emergency, but we know that returning to the status quo before the emergency is certainly not a good enough.”
He pointed to Maryland passing the Secure Minimum Wage Act and laws in New Jersey and New York for competitive wages and health insurance benefits.
“Those are important steps forward in those states,” Van Hollen said. “But we need to make sure the federal government is doing its job to deliver fair pay, living wages and benefits to airport workers and airport contract service workers. And we need to make sure that as we look at different funds that flow in different bills, that we use that as leverage and conditions for that purpose.”
The federal aviation reauthorization bill, which provides ongoing federal funds to airports, will come up for reauthorization next year, he said, adding those federal funds should come with assurances that airport service workers are treated fairly.
Donielle Prophete, president of CWA Local 3645, said, “Congress should put requirements on this funding that protects wages and benefits for airport workers and levels the playing field so that all the workers – whether you work for a mainline carrier, a subsidiary, or a contractor – get paid a fair wage and have good benefits.”
Prophete described the fractured nature of employment at airports.
“Carriers pit direct employees and contractors against each other to under cut wages and benefits is a serious issue for all airport workers,” she said.
According to Prophete, agents doing the same work can get vastly different pay rates depending on whether they work for a mainline carrier or subsidiary.
As the pandemic has raged on, she said the work of airport service workers has gotten harder and more dangerous.
“My members are on the frontline of enforcing mask mandates and dealing unruly, enraged, inebriated passengers, keeping them from boarding the plane and endangering lives,” she said.
The FFA does not track assaults on the ground, she noted.
She commented on Congress considering $20 billion for airport infrastructure funding, then said, “My members are the people who make that infrastructure work.”
“Prevailing wage standards have long been required of recipients of federal funds under the Davis Bacon and Service Contract acts,” a news release from the unions states. “The current proposal would extend prevailing wage requirements to federal investments in airport infrastructure. The proposal would add no additional dollars to the federal investments in airports, but rather add accountability to the resources already being invested.
“The SCA wage and benefits standards are already being used in some states and cities – including New York, New Jersey and in the City of Philadelphia – to establish the health and welfare benefits for airport workers. Extending the Service Contract Act wage and benefits standards could prove to be a historic opportunity to improve the lives of the largely woman- and people of color-led workforce, while making airports safer and more secure by lowering turnover and increasing the number of trained frontline workers.”
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-New York, and Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman, D-New Jersey, during the roundtable discussion, also spoke in support of airport service workers.