Low-paid US airport workers may get reprieve with $15 minimum wage bill

low-paid us airport workers may get reprieve with $15 minimum wage bill
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: China News Service/Getty Images

Ana Vazquez has worked for five years at Orlando international airport in Florida as a wheelchair attendant and child escort for unaccompanied minors. She makes $12 an hour, with no paid time off and the only health insurance coverage offered to her is charged out of pocket and unaffordable on her pay.

Vazquez often does the work of two or three workers because of chronic understaffing, which results in travelers waiting long periods for wheelchair service and attendants having to push two wheelchairs at once.

Vazquez lives with her daughter because she can’t afford her own apartment, as and rent has increased significantly throughout the area, while her wages have remained the same.

“We’re receiving our wages like we’re in 1995,” said Vazquez. “I have to live with my daughter, sleeping on the corner of her bed,” said Vazquez. “I’m going to set up the walk-in closet like a bedroom.”

On 16 June, Senator Ed Markey, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Chuy Garcia – all Democrats – introduced the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, which would raise the minimum wage for US airport workers, including those who work for contractors, to $15 an hour, provide paid time off and at least $4.60 an hour toward health insurance.

The bill is backed by large US transportation unions, including the SEIU, CWA, Unite Here, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO).

It comes at a time when the travel industry in the US – especially the airlines and airports – is in a deep crisis, as staff shortages in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in thousands of delayed and canceled flights that have promised a summer of chaos for millions of American travelers.

Rob Hill, executive vice-president of 32BJ SEIU and director of the national airports organizing campaign, said airlines and airports have relied on contractors that have driven down standards and wages for workers in a race to the bottom for the cheapest bid, which has made organizing workers by a single employer difficult.

This legislation focuses on entire airports to raise standards across the board to facilitate union organizing and stabilize the workforce at airports with livable wages and benefits amid high employee turnovers and worker shortages, especially as significant federal funds go to airports and the airline industry.

“With this bill, the federal government will be raising the standard for potentially hundreds and thousands of airport workers, mostly workers of color,” said Hill. “If the federal government’s going to fund money into this, it should be a benefit for workers, it should be a benefit for taxpayers.”

Shawn Montgomery, an airplane cabin cleaner for an American Airlines contractor at Charlotte Douglas international airport in North Carolina for about a year, said he is constantly being rushed while on the job, often given only 10 minutes to clean an entire plane.

Montgomery and his co-workers take out trash and work outside in hot weather, without time to get a drink of water, and they often experience heat exhaustion symptoms. Some of their break rooms don’t provide cold water or air conditioning and they’re not allowed to use airline break rooms.

“Our jobs, our positions and who we are, we’re not valued, and that’s the biggest reason why we’re trying to unionize. I want conditions to be better for my current co-workers, but I also want the conditions to be better for the next set of people that are coming in,” said Montgomery.

Since he started last year, only one co-worker out of 10 in his training class is still on the job, because of the low pay, lack of benefits and strenuous working conditions.

He recently missed the graduations of two grandchildren because he has no paid time off and couldn’t afford to lose the income. He works a second job to try to make ends meet, but struggles with the stress of trying to keep up with rising costs of rent, gas, food and other basic necessities.

“The airline industry itself has been granted billions and billions of dollars in help. None of that has trickled down to the very people who are the essence of those airplanes being able to leave the ground,” added Montgomery.

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