New York, NY—Signaling a new phase in their drive to win better training, wages and benefits, hundreds of contracted passenger service workers at the John F. Kennedy International Airport joined supporters—including elected officials, leading clergy and other community leaders—in a call for better working conditions at the airport.
The workers and their supporters—clad in black T-shirts emblazoned with “Together We Rise”—said they were marching through Terminal 4 Wednesday afternoon to take a stand for good jobs at the airport. They called for an Airport Worker Bill of Rights that will guarantee basic standards for all nonunion subcontracted airport workers.
The march followed a similar protest at Newark Liberty International Airport in the morning.
“It is intolerable that in the most expensive city in the world, workers have to struggle to get by on $7 or $8 an hour,” Bishop Orlando Findlayter of Churches United to Save & Heal (CUSH). “People want good jobs. It is time to raise wages for this group of non-union airport workers, to give them better training and benefits.”
The workers said the march marked the beginning a summer of decisive and assertive actions to win better training, wages and benefits.
Samuel McCalman, a baggage handler at JFK, complained of grueling work schedule as a result of understaffing. McCalman has worked on the job for just over a year and makes $8 an hour. He said he often struggles just to pay rent and put food on the table.
“We are on our own when we get sick,” McCalman said. “You either stay home and lose a day’s pay or come to work sick.”
Employees of contractors hired by the airlines to provide vital passenger services say they are mired in a two-tier contracting system that has left them stuck with poverty wages with no meaningful benefits while employees working directly for the airlines and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey earn much better wages with benefits like employer-paid sick days, vacation and health care.
Passenger service Workers at the nation’s busiest airports—LaGuardia, Newark Liberty and Kennedy— contribute to the region’s security and economic health but the great majority earn low wages and benefits that fall well below the federal poverty threshold. The workers, who are overwhelmingly people of color living in the low-income neighborhoods surrounding the airports, work hard every day but struggle without a living wage to meet basic needs, often relying on public benefits such as food stamps, subsidized housing or government-sponsored health care.
The most frequently reported wage in a recently conducted survey was $7.25 per hour—the federal minimum wage. The median wage of $8 amounts to an annual salary of $16,640, more than 25 percent less than the federal poverty line for a family of four at $22,040.
The report—Above Board: Raising the Standards for Passenger Service Workers at the Nation’s Busiest Airports—identified a total of more than 67,000 workers at New York and New Jersey’s three major airports. Close to 1 in 4—16,569—hold passenger service jobs. Passenger service positions include security officers and screeners, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, skycaps, ticket checkers, cabin cleaners and janitors, ramp agents, and dispatchers.
The vast majority of those workers—14,634—are employed by contractors hired by airlines to provide passenger services. The remainder work for contractors hired by the Port Authority. Passenger service workers employed by airline contractors earn much less in wages and have fewer benefits than those who work for the Port Authority contractors.
Priti Katoch, a security officer at JFK, said the workers have to be able to organize to fight for their rights.
“This is what we are fighting for. I came to this country for the American dream. But now I cannot save one penny. I cannot afford to go on vacation and I get my health care through the government,” Katoch said.
With more than 120,000 members, SEIU 32BJ is the largest property services union in the country.