Op-Ed | After Investing Billions in the Infrastructure of JFK and LGA, It is Time to Invest in Airport Service Workers Like Me

Photo: 32BJ SEIU

More than one hundred million people from New York and across the globe come through La Guardia and JFK airports every year. Before they ever board a plane, before they check or collect their luggage, before they even enter the terminal when arriving or departing, workers like me are hard at work to ensure those passengers have a safe, clean and enjoyable experience.

From terminal and cabin cleaners to baggage handlers and security officers, we are the thousands of airport workers who provide the essential glue that keeps airports safe, secure, clean and traveler-friendly. Most of the time you don’t even know we’re there, toiling away behind the scenes to make sure you or your loved ones can travel with peace of mind. Whether it was during the most uncertain and scary moments of the COVID pandemic in the dayssince, airport workers provide the frontline service for customers to get where they need to go.

After fighting hard to improve working conditions at airports for years, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recognized our hard work and sacrifices with a mandated minimum wage that took us up, step by step, to $19 in 2023.  

I work for a company that provides services in Terminal 5 at JFK, and for the past 20 years, this airport has been myhome and its customers like my family. I’m not alone in that approach too. Our airport workers take a great deal of pride in what we do and the role we play in keeping travelers safe and satisfied. We also are willing to fight and win better work conditions. That’s precisely what we did in 2021. That was the year we pushed hard to pass the Healthy Terminals Act, providing NY airport workers with a fixed rate for healthcare that, as a union, we bargained into fully employer paid, quality health insurance.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, I finally had access to healthcare. Can you imagine that, almost two decades without healthcare? It was nearly impossible to afford it on my own because I did not make enough money.  To go to a doctor or specialist, I had to empty my bank account.. I’mso grateful that through my union we won wage and healthcare policies. It’s been a life-changing experience for me and my family. 

I call it my “wonder card” – the insurance card I received when we first got real health coverage – and it changed my life. For too long, something as simple as a regular physical seemed out of reach. Now, I can keep up with my regular physicals. Thanks to my “wonder card,” I can finally get the dental work I need and get new glasses. It has been such a relief to know I don’t need to suffer needless pain.  But while I’m grateful for now having coverage, in the years since with healthcare costs on the rise, the state-mandated fixed contribution in Healthy Terminals act will quickly not be enough for our coverage.  

Unlike the rate our counterparts working at New Jersey airports receive, which has steadily grown to reflect the escalating cost of healthcare, New York’s rate has remained stagnant. This means that while the cost of high quality, employer-paid healthcare has gone up, much like other costs of living, NY’s fixed rate has not increased to meet the growing price of healthcare. 

The New York Healthy Terminals Act helped build a solid foundation by establishing health coverage for airport workers but that floor has been sinking while costs continue to rise. That’s why we desperately need to set the same minimum healthcare supplement that New Jersey has. Without such an increase in supplemental benefits there’s just no way the coverage we have will be able to keep pace with the mounting costs of health insurance.

Additionally, we need scheduled increases to the minimum wage we earn that would take us from the current $19/hour up to $25/hour by 2030. Given the high cost of living we face, and especially in light of the billions in profits airlines are taking in, we need a real family-sustaining minimum wage. It’s what we deserve and need to survive. We’ve seen billions spent on improving the infrastructure of our airports to enhance the customer experience, but doing that without adequately paying the workers who are the heart and soul of the quality service customers count on just doesn’t make dollars or sense. 

Lastly, we also are without access to adequate Paid Time Off, and that significantly diminishes our ability to do our jobs faithfully and fully without having to choose between caring for a sick loved one or losing a day of pay. Again, extending the standard vacation and holidays mandated by the NJ Healthy Terminals Act to NY workers as well would create parity, substantially boost worker morale, mitigate worker turnover and increase productivity that benefits both the customers and airlines alike.

The Port Authority has shown itself to be a fair partner in progress when it comes to protecting our airport workforce. What we’re asking them now is to just build on the work they have already started to make sure the workers, like me, who make air travel possible can provide for ourselves and our families.