Citing COVID-19 outbreak, airport workers seek raises to afford health insurance

Unionized workers at Newark Liberty International Airport are calling on lawmakers to pass legislation giving them enough of a raise to afford health insurance, saying that failure to do so risks their safety, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Leaders of SEIU 32BJ, which represents baggage handlers, cleaners, food service workers, wheelchair attendants and others at Newark and the New York region’s two other major airports, say their 10,000 members are on the front lines during the current crisis but don’t earn enough to afford insurance or make use of what’s available to them.

“Even before the coronavirus went viral, you’d have passengers coughing without covering their mouth, sneezing, walk up when you’re talking and spit just flying on you,” said Tisha Taylor a Newark baggage handler who says she can’t afford health coverage. “How can we stop the spread if we can’t even go to the doctor to get checked if we have it, or to get the proper treatment for it.”

Her colleague, Andre Cooper, who cleans plane cabins, says he has insurance through his employer, but he can’t afford to use it. “Right now my deductible is 5,000, $5,000 that I got to pay,” he said.

The union’s call for help from lawmakers comes the day after Gov. Phil Murphy said state agencies had taken steps to waive COVID-19 testing-related co-pays and other cost sharing for many in the state, including Medicaid members, public employees, individuals insured under state-regulated plans and those without any health care coverage. The order did not provide for coverage of care beyond screening, though.

32BJ is urging New Jersey lawmakers to approve a bill — the Healthy Terminals Act — that would boost members pay beyond minimum wage, starting with $2 an hour this year and growing to $4 an hour on top of minimum wage by 2025. A similar bill is pending in the New York State legislature.

First introduced in early February, the New Jersey measure was referred to the respective labor committee in each house of the Legislature, and no formal action has taken place since.

But the legislation has the endorsement of senior members of the Democratic majorities in both houses, including Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Assembly Deputy Speaker Daniel Benson.

“When you have folks handling our food, luggage at the airport, we want to make sure they can see their doctors and afford medicine and stay healthy to make sure we have a safe and healthy workforce,” Benson said.

“We need to be able to create a health plan so these 10,000 workers could have access to quality, affordable healthcare now more than ever with the coronavirus and other flus that are going around,” said Kevin Brown, a vice president of SEIU 32BJ. “People need to be able to take care of themselves.”

The union was successful in 2018 in its push for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to institute a series of bumps in the minimum wage, to $19 an hour in 2023.

The union is pushing for Garden State lawmakers to hold hearings on the bill, and say they are hoping to pick up some Republican support.

“It’s important they listen to us because people need to be covered,” Cooper said.

Omni-Serv of Newark is among the employers. It did not return a phone call for comment.

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