Cabin cleaners and baggage handlers are among the tens of thousands of airport workers expecting a significant pay increase. After years of pressure from airport workers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey plans to vote Thursday on raising the minimum wage at its airports to $19 an hour.
Hector Figueroa, president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, said Wednesday that the increase wouldn't catapult his members into the middle class. But it would help some of the estimated 40,000 workers employed by private contractors servicing the airports to better feed their families, buy school supplies and pay bills.
“It makes a big difference,” Mr. Figueroa said.
The Port Authority operates John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports, both in Queens, N.Y., as well as Newark Liberty International Airport in N.J. The three airports together served more than 130 million passengers last year.
Because of differences between state minimum-wage laws, many airport workers in New York currently earn $13 an hour, while many in New Jersey make between $8.60 and $10.45. About 20% of workers rely on food subsidies or food stamps, the Port Authority says.
Airport workers have campaigned for a minimum-wage boost since 2014, regularly crowding into monthly Port Authority board meetings. They have implored the Port Authority to force private contractors to raise wages, while telling commissioners of their struggle to survive in one of the most expensive regions of the country.
Commissioners will vote Thursday on a package of annual increases beginning in November, which would raise the minimum wage by 2020 to $16.20 an hour — the equivalent of about $32,400 a year, according to Port Authority documents — and ultimately reach $19 an hour by September 2023.
Port Authority Chairman Kevin O'Toole said in a statement Wednesday that raising wages should boost workplace morale and productivity, improving passenger experience and airport safety as a result.
“People cannot be expected to do their jobs well if they aren't paid well,” he said.
The Port Authority was expected to raise wages this summer, but board members hesitated at the last minute, citing a possible legal challenge from companies that service the airport and airlines. On Tuesday, the agency released a 100-page report detailing the rationale for the wage increase, which emphasized safety and security issues.
Proposed minimum wage to take effect in September 2023
The report noted that airport workers, some of whom have access to airfields and aircraft, play important roles in spotting suspicious activity and helping in times of crisis, such as a storm response or an airport shooting. But annual staff turnover, currently at about 30%, is so high that many workers lack the necessary experience and training.
Airlines for America, a trade association of U.S. airlines, including American Airlines Group Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc., wrote to the Port Authority in July, calling the safety and security arguments “mere ‘gloss' for social welfare policies.” It also warned that the wage increase would “have a direct impact on air carrier prices and services at the three major Port Authority airports.”
A spokesman for the group said in a statement Wednesday that the minimum-wage increase exceeds the Port Authority's legal authority. “We have not yet determined next steps, however, we continue to closely monitor any developments with the resolution,” the spokesman, Vaughn Jennings, said.
BY PAUL BERGER