A push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the lowest-paid airport workers across the United States has landed in Washington.
Workers at Reagan National and Dulles International airports have joined a growing national campaign for better pay and benefits, bringing attention to hourly wages that are as low as $6.75, which force many of those who keep the airports running into working two or three jobs to sustain their families.
“Your rent goes up every year, but they never increase your salary,” said John Kankum, a baggage handler who makes $8.50 an hour at National.
Following action at other U.S. airports where the workers’ struggle has led to protests, marches and strikes, Washington-area workers rallied last week, promising a fight over the next few months for “fair living wages.”
The low-paid workers hold critical service jobs — keeping terminals and plane cabins clean, moving bags and transporting people with disabilities. There are more than 2,000 such workers at National and as many as 4,200 at Dulles.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees both airports, has a living-wage policy that applies to airport contracts, but it does not apply to companies that contract directly with individual airlines.
For example, an MWAA contract for unarmed security services sets an hourly wage of $13.65, spokesman Christopher Paolino said.
“For well over a decade, MWAA has required living wages on labor-intensive Airports Authority service contracts at the airports. Possible changes to the current living-wage policy are under review,” he said.
He declined to specify what that review might entail.
Jaime Contreras, head of 32BJ Service Employees International Union for the Washington area, which is organizing the workers, said the MWAA could force airlines to abide by its living wage and provide a supplement to cover health care for workers.
“MWAA has the authority to change things at the airport for these workers,” he said, noting that even employees making the MWAA’s living wage lack benefits such as health coverage and sick leave.
Kankum, 43, who works from 4 a.m. to noon as a baggage handler, said his wage has increased only 25 cents in the eight years he has been at National.
He works a second job at the airport from 3 p.m. to midnight to support his six children, and when the night job extends to dawn, he’s forced to sleep at the terminal.
“I have to stay put until I get something better,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
Once contracted directly with airlines or airports, these service jobs are now outsourced to companies that compete for the contracts — a growing trend over the past decade that has led not only to poorer working conditions, but also lower wages, advocates and researchers say. The vast majority of these workers are immigrants and minorities.
A 2013 report by the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley found that between 2002 and 2012, more than a third of workers doing cleaning and baggage-handling jobs lived in or near poverty. During that same time frame, the outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled, from 25 percent to 84 percent, with the average hourly wage declining 45 percent, from more than $19 an hour to $10.60, the report found.
“These are workers who are not only doing important jobs at facilitating airport functioning, but they are handling your bags, and that has security implications,” said Miranda Dietz, a researcher and data analyst at the center who co-authored the report.
“They are doing work that is important to maintaining a secure airport, but they are not being paid as if they are as vital to the security of the airport as they are,” she said.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor at Plymouth United Congregational Church in Northeast Washington, said the conditions for workers are so poor that they demand organizing and agitation.
“Wages have not kept pace with the kinds of increase in the standard of living in the area. It’s a real issue of justice and a real issue of fairness,” he said. “We’ve got to apply pressure because we’ve got so many companies that ignore the health and well-being of their workers.”
If the experience at other airports is any indication of where the movement might be headed in Washington, walkouts and other service disruptions are possible.
The campaign that began three years ago at a handful of airports has expanded to 16, including the New York area’s three major airports, and Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami. In addition to the $15 minimum hourly wage, the workers are seeking health care, sick leave, retirement benefits and job protections.
Their efforts, which have included strikes at Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia airports, have won some concessions. In Philadelphia, city leaders in June forced airline contractors to raise wages to $12 an hour. In Seattle, a state court ruled in August that a $15-an-hour minimum wage law applies to airport workers. And in South Florida, Broward County officials last week voted to extend a living-wage ordinance to contract airline workers, upping salaries by more than $3 an hour for some workers.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” said Robin Wilson, a security officer at Los Angeles International Airport, where workers began to demand improvements a decade ago. “In Los Angeles it took us going on strike. It took us going to visit politicians. It took a lot of work. It wasn’t easy.”
In Washington, labor leaders and workers say that after just five months of organizing they are still in the diplomacy phase, but they don’t rule out the possibility of a strike.
“We never take anything off the table until these workers get what they deserve,” Contreras said. “We have gone on strike in other airports and, rest assured, it’s not off the table here.”