WMNF | Tampa airport workers could see decent pay and benefits under new bill introduced in Congress

New legislation introduced in the US Congress could help secure living wages and benefits for hundreds of thousands of airport workers across the United States. This includes some of the lowest paid workers at Tampa International Airport, some of whom earn as little as $10 an hour.

Last week, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Jesús G. “Chuy” García (D-IL) introduced the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act at a press conference in Washington D.C. Federal legislation would establish a national minimum wage of $15 or more, with benefits like health care and paid sick leave, for airport service jobs at all airports Americans who receive federal funding.

“Workers are the engines of our economy, and they are rising up to demand the dignity and compensation they deserve for their essential work,” said Senator Markey. “Airport service workers have kept Americans moving safely through two years of a global pandemic, so as our airports begin to recover, we can’t let the status quo fly.”

A living wage for airport service workers

The pro-labour legislation is backed by several unions that represent airport and airline employees, including the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the Transportation Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the 32BJ Service Workers. International Union (SEIU), representing approximately 3,000 contract workers at Florida airports and 18,000 nationally.

“The aviation industry survived the pandemic thanks to the dedication of airport service workers who kept us moving and risked their own health, and the health and safety of their families,” Rep. Garcia said. “But service workers haven’t received the wages and benefits they deserve. They deserve so much more. And that starts with giving them a place at the table.

One such worker is Gladys Perez, a 71-year-old security guard at Tampa International Airport. Like much of the airport services workforce, Perez is a person of color and an immigrant, who moved to Tampa from Puerto Rico to be with his family.

She has worked at Tampa International Airport for 18 years and currently earns $12 an hour, up from less than $11 last year. She works full time, 40 hours a week, to support herself and her family, including an adult daughter unable to work and her grandchildren.

For about a year, she’s been organizing with the 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at TPA, to get better wages and benefits for frontline essential workers like her.

With flightPerez says low wages have exacerbated the airport’s staffing shortage problem, making it difficult for service workers like her to help passengers in a timely manner. “Most of the time they say, ‘Oh, people come and they don’t want to work.’ But that’s not the only point. It’s just that the pay is too low,” Perez told WMNF.

The airline industry also received $54 billion in CARES Act funding, intended, in part, to cover payrolls during the COVID-19 pandemic and help airports maintain operations.

In total, airports receive $11 billion in federal funding each year. The airline industry also received $54 billion in CARES Act funding, intended, in part, to cover payrolls during the COVID-19 pandemic and help airports maintain operations.

The 32BJ SEIU union says accepting public money should come with a stipulation that airports, at the very least, pay their workers a living wage – and make sure the employers they work with contract also do. “This will not only benefit airport workers, but will alleviate some of the staffing shortages that are exacerbating travel delays and cancellations,” a spokesperson for 32BJ SEIU told WMNF.

Like many airport service jobs, Perez’s job at TPA is outsourced to a low-wage outside company that contracts with the airport. This follows a trend of several years, dating back to the 1970s with airport deregulation, which drove down salaries for many service positions, including Perez’s. The company that employs him directly also does not offer him benefits, such as affordable health care or paid sick leave.

Under the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, all employers operating at U.S. airports that accept federal dollars would be required to adopt decent wage and benefit standards, similar to those granted to federally hired workers. under the Service Contracts Act.

Living paycheck to paycheck

A lack of benefits at work is keenly felt by 46-year-old wheelchair attendant and baggage handler Anthony Sanders.

A former New York City security guard, Sanders has worked at Tampa’s main airport for four years and earns $10 an hour, plus tips.

For a month, he has not worked without pay because of a blood clot that formed in his leg. Sanders says he loves his job, even when he walks it ten to twelve miles a day, carrying wheelchairs from airport parking lots to terminals.

It helps seniors, people with disabilities, and others who need a wheelchair to get on their flights. Workers told WMNF that some TPA attendants had to push multiple wheelchairs at once — clearly a safety hazard to passengers and workers — due to understaffing.

Sanders, who currently shares a $1,500-a-month two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, says it’s hard to make ends meet in Tampa on $10 an hour, even working full-time. “I live paycheck to paycheck,” Sanders told WMNF. “I have to work harder, or work longer.”

Organizing for a living wage

Frank Bohan is a baggage handler and, like Sanders, also handles wheelchair passengers. The 65-year-old is a former Bronx union member and shop steward at TPA. “I have a second life with the union now, I love it,” Bohan said, with a not insignificant sense of pride.

When he started working at TPA five years ago, he was earning $5.50 an hour, plus tips. Last year, TPA baggage handlers reported earning as little as $7 per hour, relying largely on tips that most passengers don’t know they’re accepting. Today, Bohan earns $10 an hour.

Still, Bohan thinks that with the cost of living and the work they do, it should go up to $15 an hour, ideally closer to $18 an hour – not just for himself. , but especially for his colleagues, many of whom are immigrants and people. of color. He says the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with an increase in the cost of living in Tampa, has made difficult but important work even more difficult.

“The first six eight months of the pandemic were brutal,” Bohan said. “We walked around with our hands in our pockets. It was like a ghost town. No one around so you couldn’t make any money. It was really hard for people. Do you know what I’m saying? And I know I worked six days a week, sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day just to make money.

Still, Bohan considers himself lucky. It’s his retirement job, he says. Today, he receives social security, a pension and health insurance coverage. “But I see people, you know, these young people who are really struggling.”

“Shit wages” won’t fly

Proponents of the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), say paying all airport workers a living wage will help everyone who travel, not just workers, by easing staffing shortages that are causing greater delays and cancellations.

“Studies show that paying airport employees a living wage benefits consumers because the service is better. Security is better. Security is better. Decline in turnover, [and] ensures airports have an experienced workforce to respond,” Schumer said.

The bill would also ensure that the taxpayers’ money that goes to these airports is put to good use. “We’re here to say, pay these shitty salaries for such important jobs, when there’s so much federal money going through our airports – it won’t fly anymore,” Schumer added.

The office of Tampa Bay-area U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat who has already supported pro-labour legislation, did not respond to an email request for comment on whether it plans to support the House bill. Neither does Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s office. A spokesman for Senator Rick Scott said the senator would review the legislation. U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, a Democrat, is also reviewing the legislation, according to a spokesperson.

In recent years airport workers unionized with 32BJ SEIU and other unions, such as Unite Here, have already won fights for higher wages in other cities, like chicago, New York Cityand philadelphia cream. According to 32BJ SEIU, which organizes airport contract workers, more than 35,000 airport workers at 37 airports have won their union. In total, more than 153,000 airport workers have won raises and other improvements, such as employer-provided health insurance and paid sick leave, over the past 20 years.

Frank Bohan, Wheelchair Attendant at TPA, has seen this momentum and finds it exciting. A long-time trade unionist, Bohan told WMNF during a break at work, “Unions empower the middle class,” he said over the phone, adding, “The union is the best thing I never did, I say you.”

UPDATE: Added a comment from the office of U.S. Representative Charlie Crist, who is currently reviewing Good Jobs for Good Airports Act legislation.

Michael A. Bynum