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Workers at Reagan National Airport stage ‘sleep-in’ to protest low wages

Workers protest at a “sleep in” at Reagan Airport Tuesday night for higher wages. (Courtesy of Julie Karant/SEIU)

Workers at Reagan National Airport staged a “sleep-in” Tuesday night to protest low wages as part of their ongoing campaign to pressure the authority that oversees the facility. Flights and operations at the airport were not disrupted.

According to a statement from 32BJ Service Employees International Union, which represents many of the workers, roughly 100 workers have contracts at Dulles International and Reagan National airports but “can’t afford rent or transportation to and from work.” The union also said other workers “lack the time to go home between shifts and other jobs,” the statement said.

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One of the airport workers, Fikreselassie Gonfa, is a father of three who works as a baggage handler from 4 a.m. to midnight; he is employed by two different contractors, working two jobs at the airport to try to make ends meet. But because of a two-hour commute, he doesn’t have enough time to sleep at home so he often sleeps in his car, according to union organizers.

Another worker — Paul Fordjour — works as a dispatcher and a wheelchair attendant at Reagan National. He sometimes sleeps inside the airport to get to work on time for his 4 a.m. shift, and he doesn’t have any paid vacation so he was unable to go home to Ghana when his father died.

The union is pushing for $15 an hour pay for contracted service workers; some workers now make as little as $6.75 an hour. Their jobs range from wheelchair attendants to baggage carriers and cleaners for terminals and planes.

About 15 people participated in the “sleep-in” Tuesday night, and another 15 were expected to join them Wednesday morning at a board meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles and Reagan National airports.

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MWAA has a living-wage policy that affects its airport contracts, but it doesn’t apply to companies that contract directly with individual airlines.

Similar protests have occurred in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston.