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Aviation booming, but almost half of US airport workers live below poverty line

Aviation booming, but almost half of US airport workers live below poverty line

Many US airport workers are skipping meals, because they simply do not make enough money, and to make sure their families at home are fed. These are the people that make it safe to travel, that load our baggage, that keep our airports clean.

Four in 10 of these workers admit to going hungry or skipping a meal, according to a new national survey. This sad reality has become a way of life for far too many contracted personnel and their families across the country. At a time when most Americans celebrate and are grateful for bounty, these employees often go hungry because they don’t earn enough to make ends meet.


There’s an undeniable poverty crisis at our airports: 42 percent of airport workers live below the poverty line, a new survey of workers at the nation’s 30 busiest hubs finds. Most of these security officers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, janitors, wheelchair attendants and other passenger service workers are parents who support households and families that depend on their income.

In contrast, the U.S. aviation industry is booming. Profits have literally taken off for airlines in recent years as commercial carriers in 2015 generated record profits of $25.6 billion and $169 billion in sales, for a combined net income margin of more than 15 percent. This was the sixth consecutive year these carriers have posted after-tax profits. Despite the unprecedented industry profits, airlines have created a race to the bottom that has hammered airport staff.

“The survey confirms what we have been saying all along,” said Nancy Vasquez, a skycap at Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport, who earns just $2.10/hour plus whatever unreliable tips she can get. “Every day we make sure passengers get to their gates safely, get their luggage and get on a clean plane, but our families can’t get by. If huge corporations like the major airlines and McDonald’s paid us $15/hour and respected our right to form a union, our lives and this country would be very different. The Fight for $15 shows that we have to take action, and even risk arrest, and that’s what we’re going to do Nov. 29.”

By waging massive demonstrations right after the national election, airport, fast-food and underpaid workers in other industries are showing their commitment to hold politicians of all parties accountable for their responsibility to raise pay and strengthen union rights. Now that Election Day has come and gone, they are taking to the streets—and risking arrest—to show that the time is now for the country’s leaders and corporations to act.

Every airport worker—from ramp workers to terminal cleaners—has a role to play in keeping passengers safe and airports running smoothly. The survey found that one-third of employees have been at the airport for less than a year. Hourly wages of at least $15 and union rights will help reduce turnover and keep experienced workers—including security officers—on the job. Having a union will help all workers demand the training and equipment they need to deal with the multiple threats—from infectious disease to armed attacks—that our airports face.


The poll found that nearly half of airport workers are immigrants. Our airports are microcosms of our changing country, with the majority of workers being people of color, and immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. These men and women play a critical role in helping to keep our airports safe and secure and are often the first responders in emergency situations.

As part of the massive protests set for Nov.29, airport personnel are also taking to the streets to reject Republican calls to deport immigrants, and demand an end to structural racism and the police killings of Black people.

The survey also found that:

• Nearly one-fourth have received some form of government assistance;
• A majority make less than $12 an hour and report annual household income of less than $25,000;
• More than half have been on the job for less than three years; and
• Women make less than their male counterparts and are disproportionately more likely to experience food insecurity.

The plight of contracted workers such as Charles Wells, who earns just $11,000–$12,000 a year pushing passengers in wheelchairs at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, has caught the national spotlight. Two Washington Post stories highlighted his tale of spending three years sleeping in a homeless shelter and another full year sleeping most nights at the airport.

“Today’s low-wage airport jobs look a lot like those at McDonald’s, or in the home care or child care fields, or even in our factories and universities,” said Oliwia Pac, 24, who works at Chicago O’Hare International Airport as a wheelchair attendant, security officer and escort for minors. “This needs to change and we are going to keep joining together and speaking out until it does.”

For the past year, Pac and her co-workers have been sticking together to win $15 and union rights at the world’s fourth-busiest airport, but their employers have responded by retaliating against them. The workers voted last week to authorize a strike that has the potential to disrupt what will be a record-breaking holiday travel season.

Airport workers have been linking arms with fast-food and other underpaid workers in the Fight for $15 movement, which has grown into a global phenomenon that includes fast-food, home care, child care, university, retail, building service and other workers across hundreds of cities and scores of countries.

As part of the Fight for $15, personnel at major origin and destination hubs across the United States are coming together in Airport Workers United, a movement of workers and their allies, raising their voices to make our terminals safe and secure for passengers, employees and our communities. By sticking together, speaking out for change, and going on strike, these workers have won wage increases in Los Angeles; New York City; Newark, New Jersey; Minneapolis; Boston; Philadelphia; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. More than 85,000 airport workers nationwide have either received wage increases or other improvements, including healthcare, paid sick leave and worker retention policies.

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