Airport Workers Win 'Highest Min. Wage In US' After Long Battle

For some workers such as Zakiyy Medina, a baggage handler at Newark Airport, the raise to $19 an hour will mean that she can financially support her grandmother. For others, such as Desmond Grant, a wheelchair assistant at John F. Kennedy Airport, the higher wage will mean that he’ll be able to pay his bills on time.

Starting with their November paychecks, Medina and Grant will be just two of the 40,000 workers at Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports who officially begin reaping the benefits of a hard-fought, years-long struggle for a higher minimum wage.

On Thursday, the Port Authority Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted an expanded minimum wage policy for the three airports that will bring the salaries of thousands of workers to $19 per hour by 2023. The boost – which comes after years of protest from local labor groups – means that the workers will soon earn the “highest minimum wage in the country,” according to labor union 32BJ SEIU.

Thousands of baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair agents, terminal and cleaning crews will be among those who benefit from the “historic” worker victory, 32BJ representatives said.

Workers at JFK and LaGuardia currently earn a minimum wage of $13 because of the state’s minimum wage law. However – despite doing virtually the same work – some their counterparts at Newark Airport earn as little as $10.45 an hour.

32BJ SEIU President Héctor Figueroa said the new wage policy will affect all 40,000 low-wage workers at the airports, not just the employees who unionized.

“This is unprecedented and it’s your doing,” Figueroa told an enthusiastic crowd of airport workers outside the commissioner board meeting in Jersey City on Thursday. “It is that persistence that is now helping all of you build a foundation in the middle class.”

The wage hike was also celebrated by Unite Here! Local 100 and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represent over 7,600 workers at LaGuardia, JFK and Newark airports.

According to a joint statement from the unions:

“Today, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey increased wages for tens of thousands of airline catering and concessions workers. This increase will fundamentally change the lives of the hard-working people who make our airports run every day and will begin November 1, despite strong opposition from the airline industry. Service workers at LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Liberty are key to the success of our region’s airports. The new wage floor of $19 per hour by 2023 shows tens of thousands of workers that they are valued by the people of New York and New Jersey and will allow hard working women and men to finally support themselves and their families with their airport jobs. Crucially, we were happy to see that the Port Authority’s resolution covers all airport service workers.”

Under the new policy, workers at Newark will see their wages increase from the current $10.45 to $12.45 as of Nov. 1, 2018 and to $15.60 by Sept. 1, 2019 – at which point they will be equal to the wages of workers at JFK and LaGuardia. The wages at JFK and LaGuardia airports will rise to $13.60 on Nov. 1, 2018. Thereafter, the minimum wage of all airport workers will increase as follows:

However, there are still challenges for workers, especially in Newark, where United Airlines is threatening to sue the Port Authority over the new $19 minimum wage, 32BJ SEIU representatives claimed.

Union leaders pointed out that United Airlines recently “flipped” a contractor at the busy New Jersey airport, resulting in layoffs for more than 800 of the workers who fought for the raise to $19. (STORY CONTINUES BELOW)

A HAPPIER, SAFER AIRPORT FOR ALL: PORT AUTHORITY

Port Authority officials said that the higher minimum wage will make for a safer, happier airport… and the public will reap the benefit.

“Today’s action will not only make a difference in the lives of airport workers but will enhance security and improve customer service at all of our facilities,” Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole said.

Port Authority Vice Chairman Jeffrey Lynford said that “there’s no doubt” the new wage will benefit the traveling public.

“Better wages and benefits will result in significantly reduced staff turnover, allowing for better trained and observant employees who can assist in our overall security efforts as well as in emergency situations,” Lynford said. “It also will improve workplace morale and productivity.”

As part of its analysis, the Port Authority found that more than 30 percent of privately employed workers at Port Authority airports turn over every year, with the turnover rate having increased by 50 percent since 2010. Other airports across the nation, meanwhile, report turnover rates as low as 6 percent, officials said.

“I would rather have a job in my city and close to home, but I need enough to pay my bills,” said Christina Watson, who works at Newark Airport. “I was already starting to look for a new job, but now that these raises are coming through, I am going to stay at the airport.”

During a rally last December, Watson – who has been active in the labor fight at Newark Airport – explained what it means to live on the bubble of poverty.

“I live with my parents in Newark to save on rent. But I help them with utilities and other bills. So the $525 I make every two weeks is gone within a day of getting my paycheck. About $400 is spent on bills, including utilities, and $70 goes to my monthly bus card. I used to have a car when I worked full-time, but ever since my hours were cut back, I can’t afford it.”

The board’s action follows a period of extensive public input on the issue, including nearly 800 written comments from workers, businesses, academic experts and elected officials.

The governors of New York and New Jersey both enthusiastically supported the wage hike.

“I have long advocated for a living wage for airport workers at the Port Authority,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said. “With today’s vote, the agency has made it clear that they have heard the voices of approximately 40,0000 airport workers who will be impacted by increased wages on both sides of the Hudson.”

Murphy, who made a higher state minimum wage a central part of his campaign platform, said that while the new airport wages are an important milestone, the Garden State can’t give up until all of its residents earn a living wage.

“I’m confident that Port Authority’s decision to boost wages for airport workers will increase both morale and productivity, something that will hopefully inspire other employers to take similar steps,” Murphy charged.

Murphy’s predecessor, Chris Christie, vetoed an effort to raise wages at Newark Liberty International Airport, Newark Penn Station and Hoboken Terminal before he left office in 2017.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the airport campaign was about respect and paying a fair living wage for honest work.

“While Washington does everything it can to chop away at workers’ rights, New York continues to lead the way forward by raising the minimum wage to $15 and fighting to ensure airport workers earn a decent living,” Cuomo said.

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Main Photo: 32BJ SEIU

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