Ground workers at four large Florida airports say they are increasingly unable to meet their personal living expenses despite a growing demand for their services from airlines, service companies, retailers and other employers, according to a survey released Wednesday by a major labor union.
Among them is Medjhie Bissainthe, a 42-year-old contract worker for Southwest Airlines who handles baggage and customer service at curbsides. The single mother of two makes $17.56 an hour. “I’m struggling a lot right now,” Bissainthe said. “Insurance gas, food, everything went up.”
She said she starts work before dawn and must leave work at 1 p.m. so she can be with her youngest child when she gets out of school. “I have to start my days early, at 4 o’clock in the morning, because I cannot afford to pay for day care.”
The Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which represents workers at South Florida’s three international airports, says its study illustrates what workers in various occupations are facing as the cost of living is pushed higher by inflation and Florida’s real estate boom.
The union, which claims a national membership of two million workers in the health care and property services industries as well as in the public sector, also represents baggage handlers, wheelchair agents, fuelers, cabin cleaners, janitors and security officers who work in commercial aviation.
“The data we collected shows that workers surveyed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earn an average of $17.37 per hour,” said Alexi Cardona, a union spokesperson.
“However, our analysis found that these workers require hourly earnings of at least $23.84 to afford Fair Market Rent as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” she said. “We calculated that these workers would need to earn at least $37.31 an hour to afford the Fort Lauderdale area’s median rent. Almost 90% of FL workers surveyed report they are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.”
The survey consisted of 639 responses from contract workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and Tampa International Airport between April and July of this year.
According to the union, the workers reported “earning wages that are not enough to pay for housing, lacking paid leave benefits, and bearing witness to high turnover levels that put airport safety at risk.”
Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for the consumer site at Bankrate.com, suggested there is a parallel between pay levels and efficient service.
“It’s a problem the headlines have been replete with accounts of how the airport experience has not been working well for everybody this summer,” he said. “It’s not just having staffing in numbers, it’s having competent labor.”
Hours and earnings
The union said living-wage ordinances in Broward and Miami-Dade counties set hourly pay at a little more than $14 an hour with an additional $3.54 in Broward and $3.59 an hour in Miami-Dade paid out for health benefits.
“Companies continue to pay living-wage rates to airport workers” at both of the counties’ international airport, the union says. But after a 2019 state court ruling, the ordinances are no longer enforceable for airline contract workers, “meaning that companies may stop paying living wages at any point in the future, increasing economic risk for workers.”
Survey responses to questions about housing “clearly show how burdensome Florida’s high and increasing housing costs are to airport workers,” the union said in its survey summary.
The report indicates that approximately 85% of respondents fit into the cost-burdened category, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. The report compared housing expenses to their estimated wages based on weekly hours worked.
Only 21% of workers were homeowners and 38% now share their housing costs with others who are not their partner or spouse.
“An overwhelming majority (93%) of those workers stated that they would not be able to afford living on their own,” the union said.
The union estimates the airport workers require hourly earnings of at least $23.84 to afford fair market rent, the cost to rent a moderately-priced dwelling in the local housing market as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They would need at least $37.31 an hour to afford the Fort Lauderdale area’s median rent.
Rashad Grant, a wheelchair attendant at the Fort Lauderdale airport, said his rent rose $300 this year.
“I work 64 hours a week just to be able to pay my bills,” he said Wednesday. “Many of us are working multiple jobs. The airport should be a place where we see ourselves working for 20 or 30 years. But you have to compensate people fairly in order to keep experienced workers.”
Grant said there have been times when he has had to go beyond the call of duty, such as the day in January 2017 when he assisted passengers fleeing the shooting at the airport’s Delta Air Lines terminal, an incident that resulted in five people killed and seven injured.
He recalled, “We were figuring things out on the fly and did the right thing the best we could. You may be hired as a wheelchair pusher, but that day we were first responders and acted as part of an evacuation team that helped travelers get to safety.”
Enrique Lopezlira is a labor economist and director of the Low-Wage Work program at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center.
“The good news is we have seen some wage growth …,” he said. “There have been more job openings than workers. The problem is some of that wage growth has slowed down and with inflation creeping up, the real purchasing power of the wage has declined.”
Lack of paid sick time
Despite working in a “high-risk environment” during the COVID-19 pandemic, 90% of workers surveyed also said they do not have access to paid sick leave, the union says.
Moreover, the workers face “insurmountable economic pressure to come to work,” with 83% saying they reported to work while sick.
The union said many of the South Florida workers surveyed said they “opt out of their employers health insurance because of deductibles and co-payments. Many prefer to risk being uninsured or pay out of pocket to buy their own insurance.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic has eased its grip on the aviation industry and traveler demand continues a strong rebound, industry employers continue to advertise for workers.
A little more than two weeks from now, more than two dozen businesses at the Fort Lauderdale airport will be seeking new workers during a job fair in Sunrise.
In Broward County, more than 20 employers are scheduled to participate in the airport’s job fair, which is scheduled for Aug. 17 at the FLA Live Arena, home of the Florida Panthers NHL hockey club, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise.
Employers, according to an airport statement, “are looking to fill dozens of positions to bolster staffing ahead of the year-end holiday travel season.”
“Currently, FLL is one of the fastest-recovering U.S. airports, with domestic passenger traffic approaching pre-pandemic levels,” the statement says. “In 2021, the airport served nearly 28.1 million passengers.”
Companies looking to hire new workers include airlines, restaurants, retail shops, passenger service firms, government agencies, fixed base operators, cargo handlers, and ground transportation providers, among others.
Those committed to participate thus far include Miramar-based Spirit Airlines, FEDEX Express, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Allied Universal Security Service, Jet Aircraft Maintenance, Keolis Transit America, Hudson Group/AMS and Gideon Toal Management Service, operator of airport lounges.
Spirit, according to a hiring website it controls, had a wide range of nearly 160 job openings statewide as of Wednesday. They include first officers, flight attendants, technology specialists, finance and marketing employees, maintenance workers, stock clerks, ramp service (to handle baggage and other tasks) and guest service agents to help greet and check-in passengers among other duties.
The starting pay for the latter two jobs is listed at $16 an hour.
For all of its positions, the company says its salaries are “competitive” while the benefits are “comprehensive.” The latter include medical, dental, short- and long-term disability and life insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan, paid time off, travel benefits “and much more,” according to the career website.
All told, the package appears to exceed what a worker could get from a third-party contractor.
Time for policy changes?
In Washington, U.S. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced a bill two months ago called the “Good Jobs for Good Airports Act,” which would lift wages for workers who toil at airports.
The bill seeks a $15 an hour nationwide minimum for airport workers, including those working for contractors, as well as paid time off and at least $4.60 an hour for health insurance.
The measure is supported by the SEIU, Transport Workers Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and others.
“The timing is right for some policy solutions to the gaps between these wages and actual living wages,” said Lopezlira of UC Berkeley.
“We see that unions have the highest support that they’ve had since the ’60s.” he said. “The question is will there be a political will to enact those public policies?”