Orlando airport workers continue their fight for fair wages, benefits and dignity on the job | Orlando Area News | Orlando

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photo courtesy SEIU 32BJ

The SEIU 32 BJ Local rallied Aug. 3 at Orlando International Airport with workers from airports around the state.

Dalines Cortes cleans 20 to 25 airplane cabins in Orlando a day, with a team of seven or eight other cabin cleaners — sometimes less, if they’re short-staffed. She works for Delta Airlines at Orlando International Airport, one of the busiest air hubs in the nation, as an entry point to the so-called “Happiest Place on Earth.”

Cortes, a 46-year-old immigrant from Puerto Rico, earns $15 an hour cleaning for Delta, which has larger cabins on its planes than some other airlines, she says. Her current wage is up from $13 when she first began working at the airport part-time a year and a half ago. At that time, she juggled several part-time gigs: working for the airport, a Dollar Tree and a gym — the latter two both paid less, but it helped pay the bills. 

Today, she lives in a mobile home with her son, who works to help cover the skyrocketing cost of living in the Orlando area as he attends school. Although they own the mobile home where they currently reside, they still have to pay rent for the plot of land it’s situated upon in the mobile home park — and that rent has increased in recent years from $540 to $740, a 37 percent increase. The cost of electricity, car insurance, groceries and gas has also gone up.

A $15 wage, working full-time in Orlando, is “not enough,” to make ends meet, Cortes told Orlando Weekly in Spanish, translated to English through an interpreter with her union. “We [at the airport] are sometimes overworked, and we do our very best to clean everything within a certain amount of time to get the airplanes back to the gate so that the passengers can board.”

Airport workers at the Orlando International Airport are underpaid, and often lack basic job benefits like paid sick leave and healthcare, according to a new survey released by the 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The union, representing about 2,500 contracted airport service workers in Florida, surveyed 639 contracted workers total from the Orlando International Airport (MCO), Tampa International Airport, Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood Airport (FLL), and Miami International Airport (MIA) between April and July 2022.

One-hundred and thirty-two of the contracted workers surveyed — such as cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and others — came from MCO. 

According to the survey, workers at MCO earn less than $12 an hour — just a bit above Florida’s $10 minimum wage — and spend 63 percent of their income on housing expenses. To afford fair market rent in the Orlando area, MCO workers would need to earn at least $23.79 an hour. 

Eighty-two percent of MCO workers surveyed shared they had trouble paying the bills. 

“Despite Florida being a worldwide destination, Florida’s working families are struggling to get by,” the union’s report reads. “With historic inflation levels and exorbitant housing prices eating away little wage gains, working people are being pushed further away from achieving the American Dream.”

Many contracted airport workers, like Cortes, are immigrants and people of color. They perform work that is essential to the operations of Florida’s major air hubs: wheeling elderly, sick and disabled passengers throughout the airport; transporting baggage onto planes; and sanitizing airplane cabins, to help keep passengers safe from COVID-19 and other health hazards.

When Cortes first moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico seven years ago, she worked at Burger King. Then she worked in hotel housekeeping, and eventually she found her way to the airport job. Today, she works four days a week, 10 hours a day. She’s a shop steward for her union at the airport and one of the biggest advocates for their older workers. 

Younger workers, she said, need patience, compassion and training. And she reminds older workers to take a break to eat food and take their medication. 

“We do have the seniors who have sacrificed their youth to work, and who continue to work well into their advanced age, because they can’t afford to retire,” Cortes says. “That’s a shame, and that’s a travesty.”

Cortes herself is also grappling with complications of her own health scare — a condition she’d worried was a COVID-19 infection, but turned out to be a bacterial infection of the liver, causing headaches, stomach problems and terrible discomfort in her legs. 

Like 90 percent of the Florida airport workers surveyed by SEIU, Cortes does not have paid sick days, vacation days or health insurance through her job. She is, however, insured through Obamacare. 

She’s still going through testing with a doctor to determine the scope of her liver problem. If it’s just a bacterial infection, that can be treated, Cortes’ doctor told her; but if there’s indication of approaching liver failure, that could require surgery.

For now, however, Cortes continues to work — and to fight with her union, the 32BJ SEIU local, to secure a living wage and job benefits for all airport workers. 

The union has backed the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, a bill recently introduced by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and U.S. Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Illinois) in the House. That legislation would establish a prevailing wage of $15 or higher plus vital job benefits for all U.S. airport workers employed by airports (and the businesses they contract with) that receive federal dollars.

click to enlarge Rep. Darren Soto (center, in blue) at the SEIU 32 BJ Local rallied Aug. 3 at Orlando International Airport. - photo courtesy SEIU 32BJ

photo courtesy SEIU 32BJ

Rep. Darren Soto (center, in blue) at the SEIU 32 BJ Local rallied Aug. 3 at Orlando International Airport.

In addition to the direct benefits to workers, research shows that raising wages for airport workers can lead to higher job performance, higher productivity, lower turnover rates — and consequentially, improvements in airport safety and security. 

“A lot of these workers, when there’s an emergency, they end up becoming part of the first response, you know, the first line of defense,” Dr. Enrique Lopezlira, director of the University of California–Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education’s Low-Wage Work Program, told Orlando Weekly

Lopezlira, who’s studied the impact of wages and turnover on airport safety and security, says lower turnover reduces the constant need to train or retrain new workers. This can also reduce any existing gaps in security or safety measures that could pose a risk to worker and public safety.

The union’s survey showed high turnover is a big issue at Florida airports. More than 90 percent of workers surveyed said many airport workers were quitting their jobs at their company. Of those, 98 percent said workers left for other jobs that offered better pay and benefits. 

But in Florida, unlike some other states, wage mandates for private employers are pre-empted by state law. In 2003, Florida lawmakers passed a law prohibiting local governments from passing ordinances that would require private employers to pay workers more than Florida’s state minimum wage. 

And in 2019, state courts ruled that Florida airports could no longer enforce living wage ordinances established in places like Broward County and Miami-Dade County, for example, that had previously been expanded to include airline contracted workers, although companies at MIA and FLL still do. Most of Central Florida, including Orlando and Orange counties, has no such living wage ordinance for airport workers.

The Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, however, would overrule any state pre-emption, Helene O’Brien, Florida director for 32BJ SEIU, told Orlando Weekly. “The federal bill would tie higher standards to federal funding,” says O’Brien.

Steven Davis, a wheelchair attendant and baggage handler for JetBlue who’s worked at MCO since 1975, says the workers at MCO “are not getting a fair shake” for the work they do.

As the airport’s first-ever contracted skycap, the 70-year-old father of five and grandfather of 11 is a cancer survivor who, over the years, has served celebrities like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and John Wayne.

“I am a part of this airport’s history. Orlando International Airport has changed dramatically over the years, but the one thing that remains the same is the low wages,” Davis, who has a difficult time speaking as a result of his bout with throat cancer, told Orlando Weekly in an emailed statement. 

When he started working at MCO almost 50 years ago, Davis earned just $2.01 an hour. Up until a couple of months ago, he said he was still making just about $6 an hour, as a tipped worker, when the union helped increase his hourly wage to $10 an hour.

“Although I love my job and enjoy working with the public, I am tired. I would like to retire, spend time with my family, and go fishing from time to time,” Davis continues. “Every day, my colleagues and I come to work and provide the best customer service. We help put those planes in the sky. Many of our jobs go unseen, but we are here and we deserve better.”

“We’re humans,” Cortes says. Airport workers like herself get sick. They lose loved ones. They wake up in the morning sometimes not feeling well enough to go to work, but they force themselves to anyway because they can’t afford not to. For them, Cortes says, benefits are just a basic dignity and a basic exchange for their hard labor.

With their union, they’re calling on lawmakers to support the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act — which has already received support from Florida’s U.S. Reps. Val Demings, Darren Soto and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, per the union. They’re also demanding that state leadership and Florida’s governor call on the airline industry — which received a $54 billion bailout from taxpayers in CARES Act funds — to pay contractors fair wages and provide vital benefits.

“Airlines create thousands of jobs and enjoy billions in profits and government bailouts. But if those jobs don’t pay a living wage, provide paid sick days, vacation time, and health insurance, they’re not good quality jobs,” says Davis. “Without good quality jobs, airports will continue to suffer high employee turnover and delayed flights. That’s not good business for anybody.”

Are you a worker in Florida who’s organizing their workplace, or is thinking about it? Email reporter McKenna Schueler at [email protected].

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