Calls for Higher Wages for Airport Workers

By Brenda Flanagan

“We’re praying now that you hear our humble cry, and grant them the wages that they deserve at Newark Liberty Airport,” said Saint James AME Church Rev. Ronald Slaughter.

Airport workers called upon the Almighty for a raise today and significantly upped the ante. Instead of the Fight for $15 an hour, the people who are subcontracted to clean the plane cabins, check for weapons and perform other tasks now support a new bill that would pay them at a minimum the so-called “prevailing wage” — $17.98 an hour, plus benefits.

“What this does is level the playing field and really puts the workers where they need to be. We need to make sure our airports are safe and secure and that the workers have health care,” said Kevin Brown, vice president of 32BJ SEIU.

The bill would also apply to employees at Newark Penn Station and Hoboken Station and has backing in both Assembly and Senate. Eighteen dollars an hour would match wages set by statute for unarmed security and state service workers, says one sponsor, Speaker Vincent Prieto.

“We want to make sure that these workers that are on the front lines — and we added the unarmed security because they normally do the first sweep into these areas — so we want to make sure they’re properly compensated,” Prieto said.

“It’s difficult to afford the basics — like food, rent and on these poverty wages, how can anybody afford anything important?” said airport security worker Zakiyy Medina.

Currently workers at Newark Liberty make $10.20 an hour — that’s Port Authority minimum. But it’s less than counterparts earn at the Port Authority’s two other airports, where New York state’s $11 an hour minimum wage supersedes Port Authority rates. By 2019, that’ll rise to $15 an hour. This new bill asks for $18 per hour and similar legislation was introduced in New York’s state Assembly, with the approval of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s, who reportedly called it a “question of basic fairness.”

“It is un-American to be in this country, to work a full-time job and still live in poverty,” said Sen. Cory Booker.

Booker’s taking a different approach: he sent a letter to 10 airline executives urging them to pay more than the $22,000 a year that these workers currently earn.

“The airlines are finding all kinds of ways to make more profits. But they should not be making more profits by squeezing the workers who are doing work that’s essential to their industry,” Booker said.

Gov. Chris Christie adamantly has opposed raising New Jersey’s minimum wage and his office won’t comment on this pending legislation. But the four Democratic candidates for governor all support this bill.

“Don’t get discouraged because there will very soon be a new sheriff in town,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver.

The Port Authority has refused to get involved in this ongoing debate, saying minimum wage is a state issue. It probably won’t be settled until there’s a new governor in Trenton.