NEW YORK, N.Y.—Standing on circles chalked six feet apart, members of SEIU 32BJ and supporters rallied at LaGuardia Airport Nov. 17 to urge Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill that would require airport employers to subsidize workers’ health insurance.
The bill, the Healthy Terminals Act, was passed by the state Legislature in July. It would modify the state’s prevailing-wage law to have employers at LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy, and Stewart Airport outside Newburgh give workers at least $4.54 an hour to cover the cost of buying health insurance. 32BJ projects that it would enable some 25,000 people who work for airline subcontractors, such as cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, and customer assistance representatives to get coverage.
“They need it now,” 32BJ President Kyle Bragg told the crowd. “In the midst of a pandemic, this is an issue of justice. This is an issue of racial justice.”
He said that even if a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus is developed, the subcontractors’ workers, who are mostly black, Latino, and immigrant, might not be able to afford it without health coverage. The cost of providing that coverage, he added, would be less than 1% of the $50 billion in aid the airlines received under the CARES Act, the federal relief package enacted last March.
32BJ has lost more than 100 members to the virus, vice president Rob Hill said.
“The message is very simple,” declared state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx), the bill’s lead Senate sponsor. “We are relying on, and we [will be] excited to see, Governor Cuomo sign the Healthy Terminals Act into law.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a message from LaborPress. The bill passed both the Senate and the Assembly by majorities large enough to override a veto. But it has drawn opposition from the Queens Chamber of Commerce and the Business Council of New York State, who argue that it’s a government mandate that will bankrupt airlines.
Similar legislation has been introduced in New Jersey. It would set the minimum wage for workers at Newark Liberty International Airport at $13 an hour, $2 an hour above the state’s $11 minimum, beginning in September 2021, and it would rise to $19 in 2025. It would also include the $4.54-an-hour subsidy for health insurance, beginning in September 2021. About one-third of the about 10,000 workers it would affect are now uninsured, according to 32BJ.
The New Jersey Senate Labor Committee approved the bill in August. The Assembly has not taken any action since it was introduced in February.
Airport subcontractors sometimes offer workers the opportunity to buy health insurance, Vladimir Clairjune, a passenger-service representative at JFK, told LaborPress after the rally, but “if they do offer it, it’s not very good.” Premiums, deductibles, and copayments are all unaffordably high, a 32BJ spokesperson said.
Teresa Peralta, a terminal cleaner at JFK, said she was fortunate that she had publicly funded health care when she was hospitalized with COVID in the early days of the epidemic, and it took her six weeks to recover.
“I shouldn’t have to rely on Medicaid,” she said in Spanish, speaking with a translator. “Employers should offer good health insurance.”
“We don’t have all the security we need to work,” said UNITE HERE Local 100 member Wilber Tarranova, a server at LaGuardia who was laid off during the initial lockdown and returned to work in July. “Sometimes I am afraid to take my family to the doctor, because the insurance does not cover everything we need.”
The rally drew some 200 people despite being held on a blocked-off strip of road on the airport’s west side, across from a storage yard for snow-removal bulldozers—a spot so isolated that 32BJ posted guides at several points along the walk there from Terminal B. About 25 people stood on the other side of the airport’s westbound exit road, holding signs such as “Give Thanks—Give Health Care.”
Several speakers noted the contrast between the Cuomo administration’s in-progress renovation of LaGuardia and the workers’ lack of health insurance. “It’s not the Shiny Terminals Act, it’s the Healthy Terminals Act,” remarked City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Manhattan). More than 15 elected officials spoke: city Comptroller Scott Stringer, Queens Borough President-elect Donovan Richards, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, six state senators, three Assemblymembers, and five Councilmembers, including newly elected Darma Diaz of Brooklyn.
The SEIU helped organize similar rallies at airports in Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Seattle, demanding personal protective equipment, training on disease prevention, safe staffing levels, paid sick days, and more.
The Healthy Terminals Act “would really make a substantial difference in the lives of myself and my coworkers,” says Clairjune. “It’s going to provide much-needed relief to very embattled workers.”