Union pushes for better pay for service workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport

08/07/2014 4:46 PM

08/11/2014 3:19 PM

Broward County has a “living wage” policy, but the minimum wage, which is lower, remains the reality for many workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Some wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers make even less than the minimum — $4.91 an hour, not including the tips that are few and far between.

“It’s pretty much a never-ending race, trying to live off the money we get paid,” said Trey Archer, a wheelchair attendant and sometime-supervisor at the airport.

The pay gap exists because Broward’s 12-year-old living-wage law, which mandates pay of $11.46 an hour with benefits, or $12.95 without benefits, applies only to county workers and to those directly employed by certain contractors. Subcontractors that provide services for airlines don’t have to abide by it. And workers classified as “tipped” employees can, under federal law, receive less than the minimum wage.

Miami-Dade’s living wage, with provisions similar to Broward’s, is $12.46 an hour with benefits and $14.27 without.

Once paid at the bottom of the scale, in January Archer got a boost to Florida’s $7.93-an-hour minimum wage — the federal minimum is $7.25 — after several airlines pressed their subcontractors to raise their pay. Even so, his rate remains less than what janitors, security guards, clerks and others earn under the living-wage law at the county-owned airport.

Over the past few years, the South Florida local of the Service Employees International Union has been fighting for higher wages for all airport workers.

Helene O’Brien, director of the Florida 32BJ SEIU chapter, said the problem is that subcontractors compete in a “race to the bottom” to win contracts with airlines — and the cost-cutting comes out of their employees’ paychecks.

“Nationally, these are pretty much universally the worst jobs around,” O’Brien said. “The whole purpose of investing in airports is to create economic activity that benefits the local community — that’s why they’re publicly owned and publicly run.”

The union says there has been some progress over the past year. Low wages were more widespread at the airport until January, when Delta and Southwest Airlines prodded subcontractors to increase their pay.

But the union says about 100 workers who assist disabled and elderly passengers and help arriving passengers bring luggage to their cars still pull in less than the minimum wage.

Prime Flight, a United Airlines subcontractor, and AirServ, a contractor for JetBlue, still pay their employees $4.91 an hour, according to Julie Karant, communications director for the Florida SEIU chapter, with some AirServ workers receiving $5 or $6 hourly. According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology living wage calculator, anything at or below $5.21 ranks as a poverty wage in Broward, and $11.72 is required for a single adult working full time to support himself.

Under federal law, if an employee’s tips do not bring him or her up to the minimum wage, the employer is supposed to make up the difference. But the union says that is not happening.

By the union’s estimate, only a small group of wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers are paid at or below poverty wages. But in winter, peak season at the airport, there are 1,500 employees — cabin cleaners, ramp workers, passenger assistants and aircraft fuelers, among others — of 39 subcontractors at the airport being paid minimum wage, which is not enough to support themselves, let alone their families, union leaders say.

In late June, faced with the possibility of work stoppages by unhappy airport workers, the Broward County Commission passed an ordinance that would allow the county to void employers’ contracts with the airport if workers went on strike. The union supported the bill, saying it would pressure subcontractors to improve conditions for their workers, but O’Brien said it is too early to know whether the ordinance is working.

The airlines say they have no responsibility for the policies of their subcontractors. United Airlines referred questions about wages to its subcontractor, while JetBlue said in an email that it works with local partners to “ensure they comply with applicable state and local wage laws for their employees.”

“Airlines have hundreds of contractors with whom they do business, including travel agencies, aircraft manufacturers, security companies, petroleum companies and countless others, and no company — in any industry — dictates to its vendors what their employees should be paid,” a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade association, said in an email.

Changing the minimum wage and investigating violations of wage laws is the responsibility of the local, state and federal governments, the group’s email said.

In the meantime, even airport workers like Archer, who saw his pay raised to the minimum wage, say they are struggling.

Even though he is single and has no family to support, Archer said he is barely scraping by, and more often than not he finds himself “pinching nickel and dime from friends and family.” His supervisor shifts, which pay a dollar more an hour than the minimum, lighten the load a little. Many of his coworkers with families hold two or three jobs, juggling different uniforms and heading to the next job once they finish a shift.

As a wheelchair attendant, Archer helps blind or physically disabled passengers get to and from airplanes and helps them with their bags. Unlike airport skycaps — who check in passengers happy to provide healthy tips to skip long lines at the ticket counter — he said he routinely doesn’t collect tips. At most, he said, he has received $5, but often it’s a handful of change or nothing at all.

Still, Archer said he takes satisfaction in his work.

“Even when the passengers don’t tip us or don’t say, ‘Thank you,’ I still take pride in being able to assist passenger from point A to point B in a safe and timely matter,” Archer said. “That is something I do take pride in.”

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