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Newark Airport Workers Cheer as Port Authority Votes for $19 Minimum Wage

The increase would be phased in, culminating in 2023. No word yet on cost of the proposal

Minimum wage Airport workers
Airport workers cheer the decision to phase in wage hikes for them.

Workers at the three Port Authority of New York and New Jersey major airports stand to receive at least $19 an hour, a higher minimum wage than in any city or state in the nation, following a long, union-led campaign to boost salaries.

The PA Board of Commissioners voted unanimously yesterday to raise the minimum wage for some 40,000 workers at the airports by 2023, opening a public comment period that could lead to final action to adopt the $19 minimum wage at the board’s June 28 meeting.

This revised wage policy also would eventually bring wage parity to workers at Newark Liberty International Airport, who have earned less than their counterparts at JFK International and La Guardia for more than a year. Newark workers now make at least $10.45 an hour, while workers at the other two facilities get the New York state-mandated $13 minimum. Still, that $10.45-an-hour Newark airport workers currently make is more than New Jersey’s $8.60 statewide minimum.

A higher minimum wage is something union members have been advocating for since 2012, holding marches, rallies and strikes. The Port Authority in 2014 approved a minimum wage higher than either state’s at the time — $10.10 beginning Feb. 1, 2015 — but efforts to increase that further stalled due to opposition from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“We did this together, we fought for so long and we won!” said Gertrudes Lopez-Ortiz, a cabin cleaner at Newark Liberty International Airport, who was one of the union workers who cheered following the vote. “Now it is a dream come true for me and my co-workers!”

Gov. Phil Murphy shows up in support

New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, showed his support for higher PA wages by attending yesterday’s meeting and urging the board to adopt the higher wage. Murphy is calling for a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey; New York’s is set to rise to that amount at the end of the year. California, the District of Columbia, and several cities across the United States also have enacted $15 minimum-wage laws set to take effect this year or in the near future. The PA’s proposed $19 wage would top them all.

Under the phase-in approved by the PA yesterday, workers at Newark would get a $2 raise on September 1, to at least $12.45 an hour, while the minimum at the New York airports would rise to $13.60. On Sept. 1, 2019, all airport workers would have to receive at least $15.60 an hour, with additional annual increases following until the wage would reach $19 on Sept. 1, 2023. The total cost of the proposal was not specified, nor was how it will be paid for, though higher food and airline ticket prices are a safe bet. Many of the workers covered are contractors or subcontractors to the airlines, terminal operators, and concessionaires. They include ticket agents, baggage handlers, security and cleaning services, and those working in food services and retail. Most work in post-screening areas of the airport and about a third are represented by 32BJ SEIU.

PA officials said the wage boost will not only help the workers, but reduce turnover and improve productivity, security and service at the airports, which collectively served more than 132 million passengers last year.

It should reduce staff turnover

"This policy will not only be a financial boost to thousands of dedicated airport workers, but will result in significantly reduced staff turnover,” said Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton. "Studies have shown that higher wages for airport workers decrease turnover by as much as 40 percent. This will enable more extensive security training, and better trained workers will be more effective in assisting overall security efforts as well as in emergency situations. “

Workers agreed.

“I have seen so many colleagues leave their airport jobs because they couldn’t afford to support their families on such low pay. Now I think they will stick around and like me they’ll be able to develop the experience and training to keep passengers safe and help them get to their destinations quickly and efficiently,” said Canute Drayton, a security agent at JFK.

Kevin O’Toole, chairman of the PA board, said the workers’ activism made a difference.

“This Board has heard the voices of airport employees who’ve shared their stories with us over the years,” he said. “We know that higher wages won’t only make a difference to them personally, but will have a significant impact in workplace morale and productivity that will directly enhance the experience of the traveling public visiting our airports.”

‘Historic victory’ for union

Union workers packed the meeting room and cheered after the board approved the new wage plan. The union called it a “historic victory.”

“This is an unprecedented win for 40,000 contracted airport workers in an ongoing campaign led by thousands of cabin and terminal cleaners, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, security and other contracted service workers … They are part of a national movement of workers across this nation that are rising to demand their fair share and turn low-wage contracted jobs into family-sustaining jobs,” said 32BJ President Héctor Figueroa. “Airport workers are on the front lines of ensuring safety improving services at our airports. They greet passengers, clean the terminals and airplanes and load bags into planes. In emergencies passengers often turn to these workers for help. That is why it is so important that we invest in them and in their training and retention.”

The union had pressed not only the PA commissioners, it also lobbied lawmakers in both states seeking an $18 per hour minimum. More than two dozen New Jersey Democrats sponsored legislation, S3326/A4870, that would have boosted wages for workers at Newark Airport, as well as Newark Penn Station and Hoboken Terminal. The measure cleared both houses last year, mostly on party line votes, but Christie vetoed it.

No more ‘poverty wages’

“The men and women employed at Newark Airport and other Port Authority facilities in New Jersey should not have to work for poverty wages,” said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), one of the sponsors of the measure. “Employees at Port Authority-operated airports in New York already got a raise as a result of the increase in the minimum wage in New York. The Port Authority’s action will now see that New Jersey employees, who are doing the same work as their counterparts in New York, also get the wages they deserve. This is about fairness and providing employees who work hard every day with a livable wage.” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), another sponsor, also applauded the PA’s action.

“Today is an important day in the lives of the many families who live in my district and work at the airport and I am proud to have stood on the front lines of this issue and marched numerous times in support of airport employees,” she said. “Residents in towns like Elizabeth, Hillside, Roselle, and Union who are near the airport can celebrate this small victory in the fight to ensure NJ workers are earning more than just minimum wage. And that they continue to be paid fair wages comparable to the cost of living in this state.”

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