As Congress begins work on the FAA reauthorization bill that has a passage deadline of Sept. 30, airport groundworkers have gained a powerful commitment from Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
“If major airports want access to billions in federal funds, we want to see the workers make a living wage and get that money, first and foremost,” Schumer said during a rally of airport workers in front of the U.S. Capitol in early December.
Supporters of such legislation say that providing groundworkers a living wage is key to improving operations and security within the U.S. air transport system.
The Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, introduced over the summer by Democrats in the House and Senate but without Republican co-sponsors, never came to a vote.
It would have required all workers at airports that serve at least one-quarter of 1% of U.S. travelers to be paid at least $15 per hour. Failure to enforce such a requirement would have resulted in those facilities becoming ineligible for federal airport infrastructure grants. The legislation would also have required that airport workers receive benefits, such as health insurance.
The bill would have applied to a variety of low-paying airport groundworker jobs, including baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, ramp agents, check-in counter workers, security workers, cabin cleaners and airport janitorial staff. The legislation was set to die on Jan. 2 with the end of the 117th Congress.
Its prospects, however, would be revived if Schumer is successful in putting the essence of the act into the FAA reauthorization bill. Speaking to airport workers on a national day of action organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Senate majority leader said that during FAA reauthorization negotiations, a living wage statute “is going to be one of the top priorities of the Democratic senate.”
In many major airports, groundworkers are already protected by living wage ordinances. According to the SEIU, 14 large airports currently require wages of at least $15 per hour. In addition, eight sizable U.S. airports require that workers receive at least some support for healthcare.
But other large U.S. airports, such as those in Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Charlotte and Orlando, don’t have such requirements. Large numbers of airport groundworkers across the country are employed by contracting companies, which the airlines use to lower costs and reduce operational complexity. For example, in 2020 96% of baggage handlers and skycaps were employed through contractors, according to an SEIU analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Rob Hill, the SEIU’s national airports organizing director, argues that in addition to helping workers, a federal living wage requirement at airports would benefit the entire U.S. air travel system — a reality, Hill said, that has been especially obvious over the past year or so, as airlines have struggled with staffing shortages, including among contracted groundworkers.
“When those jobs turn into good jobs, turnover slows,” Hill said. “You have workers who care about the jobs. That has security benefits for those airports. And that ensures the right amount of people are there to clean the plane; the right amount of people are there to man the wheelchairs.”
Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.), who said he plans to reintroduce the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act in the 118th Congress, offered similar arguments in a recent email.
“This legislation will stabilize air travel by fixing staffing shortages, reducing turnover and ensuring there is ample, trained staff driving a safe and secure aviation system,” said Garcia, who is also running in the crowded Chicago mayoral election in February.
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