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Grounded Before Takeoff: Pervasive Wage Abuse Among New York City Area Airports’ Subcontracted Workers

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A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that wage theft is widespread and estimated that employers steal hundreds of millions of dollars a year from US workers. Other studies have shown that low-wage, subcontracted workers are the most vulnerable to violations of labor standards and basic rights in the workplace, including wage and hour violations.

There are 12,000 subcontracted workers at John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International, and LaGuardia Airports. These men and women clean planes and airport terminals, push wheelchairs, move baggage, drive shuttles, and perform non-TSA security functions for millions of passengers. These workers are employed by private contractors hired by the airlines to provide essential passenger services. Many subcontractors pay wages that keep workers below the poverty line and violate labor, health and safety, and wage and hour laws, including keeping money workers are legally entitled to out of their paychecks.

In 2014, the New York State Office of the Attorney General investigated and entered into settlement agreements with two of the largest airline subcontractors operating at John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia Airports. In one instance, the contractor was ordered to pay nearly a million dollars in backpay and penalties for wage theft and numerous wage and hour violations. In addition, a number of private class-action lawsuits and complaints with governmental agencies have been filed against aviation subcontractors at all three airports.

In a survey of 500 subcontracted passenger services workers at John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty International Airports conducted in September of 2014, the vast majority of subcontracted passenger services workers report being the victim of wage theft and other violations of wage and hour laws.

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Key Findings

  1. Violations of employment and labor laws are widespread among airport workers. 88% of current or recent New York and New Jersey subcontracted airport employees surveyed report at least one violation of wage and hour laws by their employer; more than two-thirds (69%) report multiple violations within the last year.
  2. Airport workers are low-wage workers. The majority (69%) report earning $9.50 or less per hour with approximately 18% reporting that they earned less than $9 an hour.
  3. Airport workers experience hardships because their low pay affects the quality of their lives. 1 in 5 workers report that they skipped a meal within the past week because of financial reasons.

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