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After a two year fight, contract workers at National and Dulles airports win a pay increase

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, talks to Esther Nchom, center, while Rabia Khatoon, right, looks on as Northam visits airport workers at Reagan Washington National Airport last month. Nchom and Khatoon work at Dulles International Airport.(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and food workers at Reagan National and Dulles International airports will get a boost in pay starting next year — the result of a two-year campaign for higher wages.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s board voted Wednesday to require companies that do business at the airports to pay contract workers a base hourly wage of $11.55 starting in January. In all, 4,500 workers — responsible for keeping terminals and plane cabins clean, moving bags, serving meals, and transporting people with disabilities — are expected to benefit from the pay increase. Many of the workers make as little as $7.25 an hour. The plan, approved on a 15 to 1 vote, also will boost pay for Dulles Toll Road workers.

The expansion of the authority’s living wage program covers eight additional contracts, and will cost $750,000 to $850,000 annually, according to a report prepared for the board. The base hourly wage will increase to $11.55 on Jan. 1 of next year, $12.15 on Jan. 1, 2019, and $12.75 on Jan. 1, 2020. After that, increases will be tied to inflation.

After the vote, workers gathered in the baggage claim area of Dulles Airport to celebrate their victory. And in a post-vote news conference with elected officials from around the region, workers said they said they will continue to push for more changes.

“This is a great first step, but the fight continues,” said Maria Naranjo, deputy director of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which along with Unite Here Local 23, helped the workers in their campaign. While the plan adopted by MWAA does boost the workers’ pay, it falls short of other proposals offered by both unions.

Added Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.): “It’s about time. This is about justice, dignity. This is about respect. A living wage is the least we can demand for a honest day’s work.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also added voices in support of the board’s action.

“We applaud MWAA for voting to increase wages for contracted workers at Reagan National and Dulles International Airports,” they said in a joint statement. “Just as low wages for some can affect the entire region, so can higher wages. When workers make a sustainable living, they are better able to support their families and they can better support our economies through local spending.  In addition, by increasing wages for over 4,500 employees, MWAA will help reduce turnover rates and ensure that our airports are doing more to retain experienced employees who are familiar with critical airport safety procedures. Today’s vote will ensure that MWAA can fulfill its mission of operating safe, sustainable airports for the entire region.”

The push for higher wages at the airports is part of a nationwide “Fight for $15” campaign aimed at raising pay for low-wage workers across the country. The contract workers at National and Dulles are not unionized, but SEIU and Unite Here worked to negotiate on their behalf. Both submitted proposals to MWAA seeking higher pay and other benefits for the workers. In the end, the authority declined to accept those plans saying they would be too costly.

MWAA has a living wage policy in place that requires vendors who contract directly with the authority to pay workers $14.27 an hour. However the policy does not cover those who work for business who contract directly with the airlines or those who work for business that operate concessions.

In recommending that the board endorse the plan, Tony Griffin, a board member who represents Virginia and who chaired an ad hoc committee that examined the wage issue, said the pay increase will reduce worker turnover and make the airports safer and more secure. He added that the increase also will bring pay for contract workers in line with that of other major East Coast hubs.

Board member Jos Williams, a District representative on the board, supported the proposal even though he said it didn’t go far enough. Workers, he said, deserve higher pay and benefits including health coverage.

“This is a step in the right direction, but it is too tentative a step,” he said. Williams,  a former president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, read a conflict of interest statement prior to the vote, noting that MWAA’s ethics officer had cleared him to participate in the matter despite his previous role.

Board member Mark E. Uncapher, the lone “no”vote, said he was concerned about the impact the increase would have on Dulles, which has struggled in recent years to attract passengers. Uncapher, who represents Maryland on the board, also did not like the idea of the authority stepping into a matter that he said should be between contractors and their employees.

While the policy raises the minimum wage for workers, it doesn’t address their push to require companies to pay for health benefits and submit to a labor peace agreement. MWAA says workers are making an average of $10 an hour, but labor leaders and workers say a majority are making just above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

The airline industry and its contracting companies have in the past emphasized that they abide by federal and state labor laws and said the government should dictate wage minimums, not airport governing bodies.

Jaime Contreras, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which has been organizing some of the workers, welcomed the proposal as a step forward to helping workers, many of whom say have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“It is not everything we wanted, but it is a huge first step,” Contreras said. “It sets the floor higher. It is a gain for these workers.”

David Tucker, who has worked as a skycap at both National and Dulles airports since 1962, said the boost is long overdue recognition of the hard work of people like him.
“It’s really going to help people,” he said.

Other workers agreed.

“With this raise, I’ll be able to afford my apartment rent,” said Pearl Fuller, a food service employee at Dulles, who makes $9.20 an hour hour.

“Right now, I have to work two jobs,” said Fuller, who lives in Sterling, in Loudoun County. “…. I’ll be able to take better care of my children.”

In Virginia, home to National and Dulles airports, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — the same as the federal minimum, which was last changed in 2009. The District’s minimum, now $11.50, is scheduled to rise to $15 in four years. Maryland’s minimum wage is $8.75, and is expected to increase to $10.10 in 2018.

A board committee studied the wage issue for a year and looked at proposals from SEIU 32BJ, which is organizing wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners and baggage handlers and Unite Here Local 23, which is organizing the airports’ food and retail workers.

The committee rejected SEIU’s call for $15 an hour, and Unite Here’s pleas for the authority to require businesses to execute a labor peace agreement with a union.

The committee also looked at similar wage policies at other airports, and current minimums at Boston’s Logan International Airport, which is $12; and New York’s John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports where the minimum wage is $11.