The board’s approval drew cheers from many workers who attended the meeting at Dulles Airport.
Joyce Wood said when she started at Dulles six years ago she made $9.25 an hour and struggled to support her 10-year-old son and mother. While making ends meet will still be a challenge, each pay increase has helped, she said.
Tadious Yalew, who works in food services at National, still has to work two jobs to make ends meet, but the additional pay means he can send more money back home to Ethiopia. “This means so much,” he said. “It’s a great day.”
The plan amends the airport worker wage policy that the board first approved in 2017. Under that policy, companies doing business at the airports were required to pay contract workers a base hourly wage of $11.55 starting in January 2018. By 2020, the hourly wage would have risen to $12.75 an hour, and after that, raises would have been tied to inflation.
Before the board approved the policy, many workers made as little as $7.25 an hour.
Under the new proposal, approved by a vote of 13 to 1, more than 8,000 workers will see their pay increase gradually: In January 2021, they will make $13.50 an hour; in 2022, $14.25; and in 2023, $15.
The hour-long debate on the proposal showcased the differing viewpoints of board members with some raising concerns about the impact on small businesses and others, including Walter Tejada, who represents Virginia, saying that $15 an hour is still not enough to survive in the D.C. region.
Board members from the District, in particular, said the authority should not wait until 2023 to increase the wage to the full $15 an hour. Their position was not surprising given that D.C. Mayor E. Muriel E. Bowser had urged MWAA board members to support the measure.
David Speck, a Virginia member who chaired the ad hoc committee that examined the wage policy, said the ultimate outcome is a compromise that will be “important and significant for the entire airport family.”
“It’s a delicate balance,” he said.
Even so, board member Joslyn N. Williams said by 2023, $15 an hour won’t be worth the same it would be if the hike were to go into effect immediately.
“To those employees who work here and to those workers who come here every day and give their all, they deserve more than what we are doing,” said Williams who represents the District and previously served as president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. “I would say them, ‘don’t give up. Don’t look to 2023.’ Keep the pressure on, because you deserve $15 an hour and you shouldn’t have to wait until 2023.”
But he conceded the votes to accomplish that “simply aren’t there.”
Said board member Thorn L. Pozen, who also represents the District: “I am supporting this because to do anything else is to do damage to the same people we are trying to support.”
However, Mark Uncapher, the sole no vote, cited statistics that showed decreases in both the number of work hours and the total number of employees at businesses impacted by the previous wage increase. In 66 percent of the cases, he noted, businesses affected by the wage policy showed a reduction in the total number of workers they employed.
“I appreciate given our extraordinarily robust national economy, this very clear trade-off between fewer jobs and higher wages may now be more palatable,” said Uncapher, who represents Maryland. “In 2023, however, this may not be so.”
The campaign at the Washington-area airports was led by the 32BJ Service Employees International Union, whose members include janitors, and Unite Here, which represents airport concessions and airline catering workers. The push received support from a number of high-profile elected officials.
In July, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined airport catering workers at a rally at National.
Local politicians, including 16 members of Virginia’s House of Delegates and Bowser (D), also urged MWAA to approve the measure.
In a letter sent to the authority on Dec. 11, Bowser wrote:
We believe that this wage level is critical to improving public safety and to maintaining the robust economic benefits that airports provide to our state. MWAA’s current policy has already had a significant impact on decreasing employee turnover. However, turnover levels remain unacceptably high. As the cost of living in Virginia and the D.C. metro area continues to rise, a wage increase policy that does not recognize the fact that these airport workers are barely surviving at the margins means that they will be left even further behind.
The original Fight for $15 push began as a campaign by fast-food workers in New York who walked off the job in 2012. The campaign has since spread to other industries, most notably airports. In July, the House passed legislation to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25 an hour. Although the legislation is not expected to advance in the GOP-led Senate, Democrats declared the vote a victory.
In approving the policy, the MWAA board joins airports in other major cities, including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and New York, that have boosted pay for workers.
The policy change came at the recommendation of a special nine-member MWAA board committee appointed in June to examine the issue. Committee members found that the original wage policy had an “overall positive impact” and proposed that workers be paid $15 an hour starting in 2023.