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Airport workers deserve a living wage

Elinor Tatum | 1/16/2014, 4:21 p.m.
Elinor Tatum

Airports are complex operations. There is so much more going on than just planes flying in and out. There are pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, flight control personnel, Transportation Security Administration workers and other security personnel—and then there are the unseen thousands.

There are over 12,000 subcontracted airport service workers at the three New York City area airports. Over 85 percent of these workers are Black and Hispanic. And those 12,000 workers make an average wage of $8 per hour, or $16,640 per year. That wage is well below the federal poverty line, but these folks work to make our flying experience better.

These men and women provide cabin cleaning, terminal security, baggage handling, wheelchair assistance and skycap services. They work with no paid sick time, no vacation and no affordable health care. These people work for operators contracted by the airlines, but the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has the ability to set certain workplace standards. In the past, these jobs were direct airline jobs, with good pay and benefits, but that is a bygone era.

A new report from University of California, Berkeley finds that more and more airport service jobs are being outsourced. In particular, the report states that baggage porter jobs have been increasingly outsourced over the last 20 years, going from 25 percent to 84 percent, while at the same time, the real wages of these workers have dropped by 45 percent. This is all so that the airlines and the Port Authority can save money while our taxes go up, our airfares skyrocket and the people we depend on for these services live in poverty.

There needs to be a change. These workers deserve some respect. They work day and night in all sorts of conditions. These workers do not even get Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday. Their needs to be provisions in the contracting process that ensure a living wage for these workers. Take a page out of the book of San Francisco Airport (SFO), where they attached a quality standards program to their permitting process. At SFO, workers are guaranteed a wage of at least $12.43 per hour; they have paid sick leave and health insurance; and they get more training.

These changes can be made. These contractors can be held to a higher standard, and these men and women can have a better chance to fulfill their American dream. We need these services; we need these workers; and they need a decent wage and a chance to do better for themselves and their families. The Port Authority board must make some changes. We implore them to implement uniform, responsible contractor standards. Let’s make New York City livable.