Senate committee votes to raise airport workers’ pay

Yvette Stephens is a security officer at Newark Liberty International Airport but she’s been laid off since the start of the pandemic. She came to Trenton to urge state lawmakers to raise the wages of 10,000 privately subcontracted airport workers by $4.50 over five years to help them afford health insurance.

“My doctor said I desperately need tests and appointments with specialist to confirm if I have a tumor that’s possibly on my throat, or something else, but I cannot afford the bills to get it done,” Stephens said.

Andre Cooper testified he works long hours overnight cleaning airplane cabins and checking for explosives.

“I work so hard at my job keeping people safe, but I’m not kept safe at my job,” he said. “I need you to pass the bill now. It is very important to me.”

Local 32BJ says its aviation members are on the frontline and exposed every day to communicable diseases, particularly COVID-19. But only a fraction of its members, 13%, are enrolled in and can afford their employers’ health insurance plans.

“Given the moment that we are in, it is unacceptable for workers at a crucial transportation hub that generates over $11 billion in economic activity to be unable to, or hesitant to, seek medical attention. The problem that the airport workers face is they make too much, in general, to qualify for Medicaid, but employer-provided plans, which are ACA or Obamacare-compliant, are too expensive for them to be able, as a practical matter, to sign up for,” said 32BJ SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Larry Engelstein.

Chambers of commerce in New Jersey oppose the bill. The vote in the Senate Labor Committee was along party lines — three Democrats in favor and two Republican against.

“This is difficult for me, but I just don’t think that we should be doing this legislatively. These are contracts that should be negotiated. These are workers that should be taken care of by the employers that they work for and we just can’t continue to operate the state by legislating wages. It’s just not good policy, and as a result, unfortunately, I have to vote no,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco.

“Finally the Legislature has had to step in to assist people who are just not receiving proper wages. Their wages are extremely low, they have dangerous jobs, and many of them are ill and can’t get proper insurance either,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein. “Finally, at a certain point, the Legislature does have to step in if the employer isn’t doing the right thing.”

The airlines refute that the workers are poorly paid and oppose the bill, which now heads to the Assembly.

New Jersey’s prevailing wage law does not cover airport workers because of the two-state nature of the Port Authority that operates Newark Airport. For the wage hike to happen, lawmakers in both states must approve the bill. New York lawmakers already have.