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‘No Bailout Without Bailing Out These Workers!’

March 23, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

“This is not a time to be picking off the most vulnerable.” — 32BJ President Kyle Bragg

NEW YORK, N.Y.—With layoffs of airline contract workers expected to surpass 10,000 this week, 32BJ SEIU is demanding that any federal airline bailout include those workers.

“We care about three things, 32BJ vice president Rob Hill said on a telephone press conference March 22. “That the workers get paid and have sick days and health care.”

There should be “no bailout without bailing out these workers,” 32BJ President Kyle Bragg added. “This is not a time to be picking off the most vulnerable.”

The union represents about 10,000 contract workers at the three New York-area airport, and 30,000 on the East Coast, including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Florida. Sometimes called the “invisible workforce,” they include cabin cleaners, terminal cleaners, customer service agents, baggage handlers, and wheelchair attendants employed by contractors the airlines have outsourced those jobs to, such as Eulen America, Airway, and PrimeFlight. They now make up almost one-third of the airlines’ total workforce, according to 32BJ.

Layoffs began last week as the COVID-19 epidemic intensified, and by Mar. 20, had reached almost 1,500 at John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. By Mar. 22, Hill said, they’d passed 2,500 in the New York City area, and were “heading toward 5,000” on the East Coast. 

“I have seven kids to take care of and no income at this time,” said Luerica Fiffee, a passenger service representative at JFK.

“We expect the worst to hit in the coming week,” Hill said, predicting that they would surpass 10,000. Airlines have told contractors to cut 60% to 70% of their workforce, he added.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group that includes both passenger and freight carriers, sent a letter to Congress Mar. 21 requesting a $58 billion bailout, half in grants for “worker payroll protection” and half in loans. The ten carriers signing the letter—including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, FedEx Express, and UPS—said if the industry got the grants, they would “not furlough employees or conduct reductions in force through August 31.” If they got the loans, they promised to limit executive compensation and eliminate stock buybacks and dividends “for the life of the loans.”

However, the request for “payroll protection” grants leaves out the workers who are employed by contractors, because they don’t work directly for the airlines, 32BJ notes. 

“How is this fair?” Fiffee asked. “Workers should be included.”

The union says airlines increased the share of outsourced jobs from 21% in 2002 to 32% in 2018. Baggage handlers and skycaps were particularly hard hit. In 2002, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures analyzed by SEIU, 75% of the 15,000 baggage workers were employed by airlines, with a median wage that would have been worth $27 in 2018 after adjusting for inflation. By 2018, 96% of baggage workers—all but barely 300—were employed by contractors, who paid a median wage of $11.39.

Bragg said it’s imperative that any bailout legislation specifically designates money for contract workers,  “so they don’t have to depend on the generosity of the airlines.”

A spokesperson for 32BJ told LaborPress that the union hoped and expected that language to cover contract workers would be included in bills proposed by House and Senate Democrats, but they don’t know because they have not seen the actual language yet.

New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) called it “completely backwards” to give money to corporations that laid workers off and not to the workers. He noted that in bailouts, “money flows to the top,” and it took years after the 9/11 attacks to get healthcare coverage for workers cleaning up “the pile,” the toxic rubble in the ruins of the World Trade Center. 

All employees should get access to sick pay, affordable health care, and layoff protection, said New Jersey Assembly Majority Conference Leader Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), whose district includes the southern part of Newark Airport.

New Jersey State Senate President Pro Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), whose district includes the airport’s northern part, said it was important to look at long-term approaches to gaps in needs and resources. The contract workers’ lack of health care, she said highlights “socioeconomic dysfunctionality.”

 “I know that I work in a high-risk job, but I like my job and I need to keep a roof over my head,” said Takiah Garrett, a passenger service representative at Newark and a mother of three. “If I get laid off, I have no bailout.”

March 23, 2020

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