(Fort Lauderdale, FL) Congressman Alcee Hastings, Broward Vice Mayor Beam Furr, airport security expert, retired Capt. LaPonda Fitchpatrick, and Laura Huizer of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) joined SEIU 32BJ and airport workers on Thursday, August 10th to launch the Safe Airports campaign at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the site of the horrific shooting this January. The leaders called for a whole community based approach to emergency preparedness, including ensuring that airline passenger service workers are fully trained.
“South Florida is one of the largest travel hubs in the country, with more than 29 million travelers passing through the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2016 alone,” said Congressman Alcee Hastings. “We have the opportunity to lead the country in putting proactive measures in place to increase security for passengers and the airport workers that serve them.”
On January 6, 2017, Esteban Santiago picked up his semi-automatic gun at baggage claim, went into a bathroom, reloaded it, and proceeded to fire into the crowds of travelers in Terminal 2 at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. Five were killed—most of them seniors—and eight were injured. An additional 30 to 40 people were injured in the ensuing “mass confusion” and chaos, as passengers and workers attempted to self-evacuate. Reports of a second shooting fueled the panic in other terminals. Passengers and employees were in lockdown well into the evening, some without adequate food, water, or medicine.
A report released by SEIU 32BJ, the union that represents more than 600 FLL airport workers, argues that the lack of emergency preparedness for airline passenger service workers; the decline of wages and benefits for these same employees due to outsourcing; as well as a “wild west” environment where more than 40 airline contractors at FLL operate without meaningful direct oversight by airport authorities, may have contributed to the chaos before and after the attack.
“Travelers have the expectation that airlines will keep them safe at every stage of their trip, from the moment they check in to when they land,” said retired Capt. Fitchpatrick, who conceived and implemented multi-agency safety measures at LAX after 9-11. “Airline passenger service personnel are in constant contact with these travelers. They should be an integral part of any emergency response planning.”
There over 2,000 contracted airport workers that provide passenger services for airlines at FLL. These include wheelchair attendants, security officers, cabin cleaners, ramp agents, customer service representatives, and many others. There are currently no requirements for these workers to be trained in emergency response and evacuations.
“We’re required to see a video to get our badges, but it doesn’t in any way prepare you for the real thing. Especially not something as bad as this,” said Sharon Pringle a customer service agent employed by Eulen America, a subcontractor for American and other airlines. “Grown men were crying. Elderly people and kids were fainting from the heat and panic. People were running without knowing where to go.”
In interviews conducted by SEIU 32BJ, only 33% of passenger service workers reported having received training from their employer about what to do in an emergency; only 27% said they feel adequately prepared to protect themselves during an emergency; and just 27% reported having participated in an emergency drill in the past two years.
Rashad Grant, a wheelchair attendant, was inside one of the terminals when rumors of a second shooter began to spread, and panicked workers and passengers began to self-evacuate. Rashad, who had heroically stayed behind with two disabled passengers, knew the best way to evacuate them onto the jet way, would be to go through a special access area that was closed to non-employees. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to get in trouble but I did it anyway because I knew it was the right thing to do,” said Rashad. “But we need to be better trained in these types of situations, like what are the evacuation routes and how to deal with our customers, because in an emergency, passenger will come to us first.”
The report argues that the effects of outsourcing of passenger service jobs in the airline industry have created an environment where contractors trying to cut costs, can skimp on training programs, as well as wages and benefits. In turn, low wages have been linked with high employee turnover which can lead to poor performance, especially regarding security.
Laura Huizar, Staff Attorney for NELP said in a statement, “For years, studies have linked airport wages and turnover to security. In 2000, for example, as the ‘threat of attacks on aircraft by terrorists or others remain[ed] a persistent and growing concert for the United States,’ the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), assessed why screeners at airports were failing in as many as 20 percent of screening tests. The study found that the most notable problem resulting in problems with screeners’ effectiveness was ‘the rapid turnover of screener personnel—often above 100 percent a year at large airports and, in at least one . . . instance, above 400 percent a year.’ Moreover, the authors explained that ‘[a] key factor in the rapid turnover [was] the low wages screeners receive.’”
Contracted airline workers are covered under the Broward County Living Wage Ordinance, which sets wages at $12.03 an hour with health benefits, and $13.59 without. Advocates say the wage rates have not kept up with the cost of inflation and that many workers are still living in poverty.
“Airport workers are literally on the front lines and are an integral part of its operations, especially during an emergency,” said Broward County Vice Mayor Beam Furr. “The County has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that they are fairly compensated for their hard work.”
“I work two jobs because I can’t make ends meet,” said Sandra Smith, a cabin cleaner for Eulen America. “We need to be trained properly so that we know what to do to keep our passengers safe. But we also need to be paid more because what good does it do to train us if we then leave for a job that pays better and has more benefits?”
“For years, Fort Lauderdale airport workers have fought to raise standards at the airport,” said Helene O’Brien, Florida Director for SEIU 32BJ, the union that represents contracted airport workers. “Having a well-trained, well-paid workforce, guarantees good service, reduces turnover, and increases stability. This is a win-win for both passengers and workers.”
The report’s recommendations include best practices and policies at other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Miami. Contractors at LAX are required to train airport workers for emergencies and undergo a transparent screening process to ensure they are responsible companies. Contractors at SFO are also required to provide paid training. The number of airline contractors providing passenger services at MIA are limited to 5 companies and are also screened. All three cities have significantly higher wage and benefit requirements.
The report’s policy solutions include:
- Establishing 40 hours of mandatory paid training that would include evacuation procedures, how to deal with disabled passengers, and preparedness and response procedures for a variety of emergencies including terrorist attacks, among other topics.
- Ensuring that trainers are experienced and qualified.
- Increasing screening and oversight of airline contractors, in order to facilitate enforcement of training requirements, manage emergencies, as well as ensure better quality airport jobs.
- Raising the Broward County’s Living Wage so that it can truly lift workers out of poverty, stabilize the workforce, and reduce turnover.
“Airlines are a multi-billion dollar industry. We need them to commit to investing in public safety,” said retired Capt. Fitchpatrick. “It is well known that when you have great employees that are well trained, who have great leaders, and receive great pay, it fosters stability and professionalism in the workforce. That professional and stable workforce can be a major asset when the unexpected occurs.”
With more than 163,000 members in nine states, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service workers union in the country. 32BJ is part of Airport Workers United, a movement of workers and their allies, raising their voices for living wages and union rights to make our airports safe and secure for passengers, employees and our communities. Workers have won wage increases in Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, Minneapolis, Boston, and Philadelphia. Today, more than 70,000 workers nationwide have either received wages increases or other improvements, including healthcare, paid sick leave and worker retention policies as a result of the workers’ campaign.