When fast-food workers in some 100 cities across the country staged protests in December, demanding a living wage, Theotis Presley regarded their demonstrations with a pang of irony. “We were worse off than they were.”
In the public imagination, employees of burger chains occupy American labor’s lowest echelon. But Presley and other airport workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, those working for some 39 airport subcontractors, beg to differ.
Baggage handlers, skycaps, wheelchair attendants, janitors, cabin cleaners, ramp workers, fuelers, passenger assistance reps, low-level security officers, checkpoint screeners — at least 1,500 airport workers, according to the Service Employees International Union — earn only the state minimum wage of $7.93 an hour. That’s poverty pay for full-time workers, though Presley says his particular employer generally holds workers to less than a full 40-hour work week to avoid granting the one-week paid vacations due to a worker who logs 1,600 hours in a year.
“Everybody has to work another job, or two, just to get by,” Presley said. Yet comparable work at Miami International Airport earns $13.82 an hour.
Presley, 53, works as a wheelchair attendant, wheeling passengers out of airplanes and down airport corridors. I had assumed that all those workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International were paid the mandatory living wage due to employees of the county or their contractors: $11.46 an hour with health benefits or $12.46 without.
I was wrong. Presley’s stuck in the airport’s second tier of employees, doing work that the airlines, rather than the county, sub out to various contractors, whose low bids, of course, were based on minimum wage and minimal benefits.
Before Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs intervened last year, Presley and the other members of the minimum-wage cast were known around the airport as “pigeons,” because they generally took their lunch breaks outdoors, where birds congregated around their feet, scavenging for crumbs and discarded food.
Jacobs managed to get the human pigeons a break room. And the county forced subcontractors to drop the pretense that wheelchair workers like Presley made so much in tips that they could be paid the “tip” minimum wage of under $5 an hour. Tips, Presley says, never came close to making up the difference.
The Service Employees International Union has been pushing Broward County to mandate the same $10.10-an-hour minimum pay for airport employees that President Obama just ordered for workers covered by federal contracts. The commissioners, representing one of the more liberal counties in the south, a Democratic Party stronghold, probably would comply, except they worry that they’ll be undermined by another of those “preemption” bills percolating in the state Legislature. Conservative legislators, urged on by the business lobby, have been pushing a bill that would bar local jurisdictions from living-wage mandates that exceed the state’s lowly minimum wage.
Poverty pay, if this bill passes, would become official state policy. When it come to wages, having a job at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International will be like working for one big burger joint.