Airport workers demand higher wages

Workers from airports around the city are calling on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to require employment agencies it contracts with to pay higher wages.
A coalition of Southeastern Queens clergy members, community residents and civic organizations held a press conference at the Greater Refuge Church of Christ on Sutter Avenue in Jamaica on Friday, February 24, demanding the Port Authority take more of an interest in developing the communities near LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark airports.
The coalition referred to a report compiled by New York University’s Women of Color Policy Institute which found that more than 14,000 service passenger contract workers earn less than those employed directly by the Port Authority.
Service passenger contract workers, who are located in the front of airports and include baggage handlers and check point operators, make an average of $16,000 a year, according to the coalition.
However, speakers at the conference said the Port Authority is receptive to their concerns. In a statement, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said he is sympathetic to the issues raised by the coalition and in the NYU study.
Regina Gilbert, an employee at JFK Airport, said at the conference that she works for $7.25 an hour, the current minimum wage.
“I’m one of the first persons you meet after you drop off your bags, which is an important service to passengers,” Gilbert said. “We are fighting for better wages, better benefits. We want to look just like everybody else.”
Contract employees are also pushing for an opportunity to unionize. Coalition members said the workers are receiving support from the 32BJ Service Employees International Union.
Speakers said that if contracted airport workers made more money, it would translate into economic development for their communities. Higher wages and health care would equal less homelessness, addiction and illness, they said.
Councilman James Sanders Jr. also attended the conference, where he spoke to the Port Authority directly, referring to it as “mister.”
“Mr. Port Authority, I know that you would not want your daughters working for $16,000 a year,” he said. “I know that you would have the biggest fit if they came in and reduced your salary to $16,000 a year.”
He called on the Port Authority to hold meetings to end “low-bid contracting,” which allows contractors to pay low wages, with the involvement of the affected workers and their communities.
But, “let’s not let this be a long meeting, because we understand that justice delayed is justice denied,” Sanders said. “Let’s not have to explain that $16,000 a year is not enough to live on.”
In a statement, Foye said he comes from a union family and is directing Port Authority staff to review the NYU report’s findings. He added that he recently met with members of SEIU 32BJ.
“While the workers mentioned in the report are not Port Authority employees, I am sympathetic to the concerns raised in this report about the employees of contractors hired by the airlines and other tenants at our metropolitan area airports,” Foye said. “I will seek recommendations on how we can work with our aviation partners on ways to improve the current situation.”

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