Newark, NJ—Signaling a new phase in their drive to win better training, wages and benefits, hundreds of contracted passenger service workers at the Newark Liberty 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 Wednesday morning through Terminal C Departure Level 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 non-union subcontracted airport workers.
The march preceded a similar protest planned for John F. Kennedy International Airport later in the afternoon.
Rev. Maristela Freiberg of St. Stephan’s Grace Community said Newark Airport was not supposed to be the bed seed of the community’s despair.
“People need good jobs, jobs that pay much better than $7 or $8 an hour,” Rev. Freiberg said. “Newark Airport has thousands of jobs but it needs to truly be a gateway to the middle class for people in our communities through jobs that uplift, rather than hold them down.”
The workers said the march marked the beginning a summer of actions to win better training, wages and benefits.
Jean Jacotin has worked at Newark Airport for 17 years. He said he makes the federal minimum for tipped jobs of $2.13 an hour as a skycap and is on the verge of losing the Newark home where he is raising two young children.
“They tell us we should feel lucky to have a job,” Jacotin said. “Don’t get me wrong, we are blessed to be working. But we also feel that we should be treated better, with fair wages, health insurance, more than one week of vacation, job security, and better working conditions.”
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 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.
Lakisha Williams started working at Newark Airport as a baggage pre-screener 11 years ago. Williams, who has a 12 year old daughter, said she struggles to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour – the federal minimum wage. Williams relies on Section 8 vouchers to help pay rent, food stamps to put food on the table and Medicaid to provide health insurance.
“It is very unfair,” she says. “I have to sit my daughter down sometimes and let her know, tell her mommy is doing her very best.”
With more than 120,000 members, SEIU 32BJ is the largest property services union in the country.