Jean Mompoint gets tired sometimes. The 56-year-old works 80 hours a week -- half the time as an office cleaner, half the time as a wheelchair attendant in Terminal C at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Mompoint picks up passengers in the arrivals section, wheels them to the baggage-claim area, then drops them off for pick-up by others. Tips aren’t guaranteed.
“Sometimes people give two, three dollars, it’s not really anything big,” he says.
Delta Air Lines Inc. operates most of the gates in the terminal, but Mompoint doesn’t work for the company. He isn’t employed by the airport, either. He works for a subcontractor, the Aviation Safeguards unit of the Command Security Corp. The unit is a self-described “committed, long-term strategic partner to the aviation services industry” that, until very recently, paid many of its workers the New York state hourly minimum wage, which rose to $8.75 from $8 New Year’s Day. Based in Herndon, Virginia, its parent is a publicly traded company whose revenue grew 20 percent during the past five years to $156.7 million in 2014. Since the firm’s share price hit its 52-week closing low, it has jumped 20 percent, to $2.04 from $1.70.
Like thousands of others, Mompoint just got a raise. Because of a decision made by the airport-operating Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the pay hourly for subcontracted employees at the city’s airports rose to $10.10 last month. Still, “it’s not enough,” he says. “We need more, because life is expensive in New York.”
Thursday, Mompoint joined dozens of other Aviation Safeguards workers -- baggage handlers, security guards and wheelchair attendants -- at a brief rally and march through Terminal 7 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. They were backed by 32BJ SEIU, a New York-based unit of the Service Employees International Union, which is attempting to organize thousands of subcontracted employees at city airports, where workers raised concerns about poor working conditions and lack of benefits.
Donna Hampton, 55, has worked as a security guard at JFK for almost nine years. She’s based at the Terminal 7 gates, where she monitors alarms, responds to passenger queries and makes sure people don’t wander into areas they shouldn’t. “We’re on our feet all day long,” she says. “God forbid you want to sit down, it’s like a crime.”
Occasionally, Hampton says, Aviation Safeguards will ask her to do “extra duties” for British Airways, like making sure baggage is properly tagged and scanned in an effort to avoid fines by the federal Transportation Security Administration. The tasks aren’t part of her job description, but there’s pressure to do them anyway. “You want to tell ’em, ‘We have to? No, we don’t work for the airline.’”
About 12,000 subcontracted employees like Hampton work at metropolitan New York’s three main airports. Low-paying, outsourced jobs such as hers are common at some of the nation’s other busiest airports, too, from Philadelphia to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Hampton gets no paid vacation time and is offered bare-bones health benefits. At $64 a month, the health plan isn’t much of a bargain for workers, whose income tends to go toward covering the most basic expenses. For instance, Hampton spends about $11 on her hour-plus commute to the airport in the Queens borough of New York from Jersey City, New Jersey. That can add up quickly.
“Most of us won’t accept that,” she says of the health insurance. “We can’t afford it.”
Hampton has the minor luxury of receiving child support, but most in her position do not, and so many have to hold down a second job. All in all, the new pay rate hasn’t eased the persistent struggle to make ends meet.
“Yeah, one job, can’t survive,” says Mohammad Hussain, 47, who for the last eight years has split time at LaGuardia as a wheelchair attendant and baggage handler for Aviation, which he supplements with freelance photography. He spends 80-90 percent of his income on his $1,300 monthly rent, which still leaves him with some extra cash to send back home to Bangladesh.
New York Councilman Donovan Richards, who attended the rally Thursday and represents a district near JFK airport, tells International Business Times it’s incumbent upon employers to raise labor standards beyond the Port Authority’s recent action.
“These people deserve better,” Richards says. “If every airline, every subcontractor was serious, they could commit $15 an hour very easily to people here. ... This is America, last time I checked, we shouldn’t be subjecting our own people to wages like they’re in third-world countries.”
Joe Conlon, regional vice president at Aviation Safeguards, says the company is merely doing the best it can to operate in a competitive environment. Barring any other mandates by public authorities, it will not be raising wages anytime soon.
“It’s important to retain business,” Conlon says. “That’s hard to do if you’re paying more than what your competitors are willing to pay.”
Some workers see union representation as the solution. In part, Thursday’s rally and march was intended as a show of strength for 32BJ SEIU, which wants to negotiate a contract with Aviation Safeguards before it files for an election with the National Labor Relations Board to officially represent the employees. Last summer, the union held an informal vote to demonstrate that it had majority support among thousands of subcontracted airport workers, including those at Aviation Safeguards. The unio currently lacks legally binding authority to bargain on behalf of the subcontracted employees, but its presence has managed to give some heft to worker complaints.
With the assistance of the union, a group of JFK airport baggage handlers has filed a lawsuit over not being reimbursed for weekly uniform cleaning expenses. The workers say Aviation Safeguards should cover the $9.95 they spend per week on cleaning uniforms for the job. Alleged wage theft of that sort is another major concern -- 88 percent of subcontracted airport employees surveyed by 32BJ SEIU said they’ve been victimized by at least one violation of wage-and-hour laws by their employers.
Aviation Safeguards’ Conlon says employers are not legally required to reimburse workers for laundering the kind of “wash-and-wear uniforms” provided by the company. He adds that “a small group of employees” support the union in New York, and that the firm maintains mostly positive relations with the labor force.
For his part, Pedro Gamboa Bermudez, 58, one of the baggage handlers filing suit over laundry expenses, hopes a union contract can give workers paid vacation days, more paid sick leave and a higher wage rate. “All we want,” he says, “is some dignity and respect out of these people.”