New York

Port Authority wage campaign advances as union takes fight to Albany

'This is really about modernizing and improving'
Airport workers cross the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York on May 10, 2016.
Airport workers cross the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport in New York on May 10, 2016.

NEW YORK — Month after month, dozens of airport workers have rallied to pressure the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for better pay, training and health benefits. Outfitted in matching T-shirts, they have demanded a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour — to no avail.

So the powerful union that represents many of those workers is taking its plea to state lawmakers in Albany and asking for an even higher base wage. The union, 32BJ Service Employees International, is backing a bill that would set a minimum wage of nearly $18 an hour for as many as 40,000 employees of companies that operate in New York City’s main airports and commuter bus and train stations.

Unarmed security guards for the airports already receive a minimum wage of $17.98 an hour. All of the other workers in those transportation hubs, which rank high on the list of potential targets of terrorism, deserve the same pay and benefits, said Héctor Figueroa, president of 32BJ.

“This is really about modernizing and improving the way that our transportation hubs operate,” Figueroa said in an interview. “They should not be sweatshops. They should be places that operate at the highest possible level, especially with the billions and billions of dollars that we are about to invest in them.”

Figueroa was referring to the continuing overhaul of La Guardia Airport and the Port Authority’s plans for renovating Kennedy International Airport and replacing its main bus terminal in midtown Manhattan. The proposed legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, D-Bronx, would cover employees of companies that provide services in those three facilities, as well as Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the governor supported the idea behind the proposed legislation.

“This is a question of basic fairness,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “The subcontracted workers at our state’s transportation centers perform critical services and they deserve the same wages and benefits as the other valued workers who keep our transit hubs safe and secure.” Guillermo Martinez, a spokesman for Crespo, said that the assemblyman hoped that, with Cuomo’s support, the bill could pass the Democratic-controlled Assembly during the current legislative session.

The state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, would most likely be a far more difficult hurdle.

To secure passage in the Senate, Crespo plans to appeal to the senators’ concerns about keeping the airports and other transportation hubs safe, Martinez said.

He could cite Johnathan Bryan as an example. Bryan is 21 and makes $11 an hour, but he plays a role in keeping Kennedy safe for travelers as an unarmed security officer for Allied Universal, a contractor at the airport.

When he is screening airport employees as they arrive for work, he said, he sees that many of them have identification badges that list more than one employer.

“If you look at many of the employees at the airport, they have two companies on their ID,” Bryan said. “Why? Because they are working a double job. Why? Because they’re not getting paid enough at one job.”

Bryan said the low pay and lack of benefits causes high staff turnover and weakens morale. “If it went up to $18 with the benefits, man, you would be more motivated to give better work quality,” he said. “I feel like the morale of people on the job would go up. Better service, better everything.”

About four out of five of the workers who would be affected by the legislation have jobs at Kennedy or La Guardia, two of the three major airports that serve New York City and are operated by the Port Authority. (The legislation would not apply to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.) The others work for private companies that provide security and various services at the bus terminal and the train stations. The bill would not apply to employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Grand Central, or Amtrak, which operates Penn Station.

A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment on the measure.

The commissioners of the Port Authority yielded to pressure from airport workers and 32BJ a few years ago and raised the minimum wage at all of the agency’s facilities to $10.10 an hour. But events have overtaken them. The state-mandated minimum wage in New York City rose to $11 at the end of 2016, raising wages for workers like Bryan. But his peers at Newark Liberty did not get the same raise because New Jersey’s minimum wage of $8.44 an hour is well below the Port Authority’s base wage.

While Cuomo, a Democrat, has embraced the campaign by unions and fast-food workers for a $15 hourly minimum, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, has not. Some of Christie’s appointees to the Port Authority’s board, including its chairman, John J. Degnan, have blocked proposals to raise the minimum wages that subcontractors must pay their workers.

“We have tried to fix this through the dysfunctional bistate agency called the Port Authority,” Figueroa said. “We are going through the Legislature because we have to figure out another way.”

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