NEW YORK, NY—Airlines and terminal operators including JFK International Air Terminal, which owns and operates Terminal 4, broke promises to create good jobs at the John F. Kennedy International Airport while getting nearly $3 billion for terminal expansions and improvements since 2002, airport service workers and Southeast Queens residents charged at a raucous JFK rally on Friday.
“Today, Delta is celebrating and you have to wonder, are they laughing at us?” Jean Sassine, Chair of the South East Queens chapter of New York Communities for Change, told a crowd outside Terminal 4. “I mean, they got their money and their expansion. Their luxury travelers get pampered in their terrace sky deck. What do we get? Where are the good jobs that we were promised?”
Dozens of low-wage airport workers held an alternative opening of Terminal 4—complete with a marching band and giant scissors to cut the ribbon—as dignitaries joined Delta Air Lines, sipping wine and champagne and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres at a “grand opening celebration” of the newly expanded JFK’s Terminal 4. Although festive, Friday’s mock inauguration in the parking lot outside Terminal 4 was hardly celebratory. The workers said, regardless of the celebration going on inside, it was just another day working at one of the nation’s largest airports for poverty wages.
“Companies at the airport got billions and people like me, low-wage subcontracted airport service workers, continue to struggle to get by on wages as low as $8 an hour with no meaningful benefits,” Tasleema Mohamed, a security officer in Terminal 4, said.
Delta is crowing about a return to profitability and says it is paying dividends to shareholders again. What it does not say is that its good fortunes and those of industry cohorts are built on drastically reducing wages and benefits through a low-bid contracting system to fill passenger service jobs—once middle class jobs with good pay and benefits held by people working directly for airlines.
Over 8,000 workers are employed by 35 different contractors at JFK to provide crucial above and below-wing services like cabin cleaning, terminal security, baggage handling, wheelchair assistance, and sky cap services.
Prince Jackson, a security officer for Air Serv working on Delta flights at Terminal 3, said he often feeds himself by eating at his church pantry.
“This is no way to live,” he said, “to work full time and still wonder if you’ll make enough to pay your bills, to have to pick and choose which bill to pay and which to put off until next month. Even a bill like for my cell is often a struggle.”
Terminal 3, Delta’s former main home at JFK, is deemed obsolete and is now slated for the wrecking ball. Meanwhile, hundreds of contracted passenger service workers in the terminal don’t know how long they’ll continue to have their low-wage jobs after Delta begins operation out of the newly expanded Terminal 4. Workers have been asking supervisors for months and sent delegations with petitions to officials to ask what is to become of their jobs. They are still without answers about their future.
“Before, we were fighting to improve the conditions of our job, to turn these into good jobs, jobs with good wages, paid sick days and affordable health care. What would we do if we don’t all of a sudden have jobs? Not having our jobs at all would hit where it really hurts,” Jackson said.
Delta Air Lines got tax-free financing on $210 million from the New York City Industrial Development Agency in April for final work on Terminal 4’s expansion and improvements. That is on top of the $800 million bond floated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for JFK IAT on Delta’s behalf to begin the expansion in 2010.
Delta Air Lines is not alone in tapping public funds for expansions and improvements at JFK while promising to stimulate economic growth in return for the city providing tax-tree financing for their projects.
NYCIDA gave a total of $1.2 billion in tax-exempt bonds for American Airlines to use towards the construction of their terminal at JFK. It awarded JetBlue $50 million triple tax-exempt financing to go towards terminal expansion in 2003. Then in 2012 the Board awarded the airline a $200 million special exempt facility bond for further expansion. In 2005, the NYCIDA authorized $417 million in tax-exempt financing for the Terminal One Group. The Terminal One Group consists of Air France, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air Lines and Lufthansa Airline.
Despite these public investments in JFK Airport, thousands of low-wage subcontracted service workers struggle to get by on wages as low as $8.00 per hour in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Workers say they often have to rely on food stamps or eat at food pantries, get health care from medic-aid, Section 8 housing assistance and other public subsidies to make ends meet despite working full time and sometimes two jobs at the airport.
“We need a return on our investments that we can actually see, jobs, good jobs in our communities,” Pastor Richard Hogan of the Divine Deliverance Church said. “We keep giving away tax-free financing in return for promises that are never kept. In these hard economic times, people can’t eat promises. We need someone to hold these companies to their commitments.”
With more than 125,000 members, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service union in the country.