By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 2011, a staggering 32.8 million passengers flew into or out of Sea-Tac airport, making this valued asset of the Port of Seattle the 17th busiest passenger gateway in the United States. Even after 9/11, when suffering airlines and low flight attendance were reported across the country, the number of passengers at Sea-Tac continued to grow.
From the loading and the unloading of planes to the boarding of passengers and fueling of planes, every step of the well-oiled machine at Sea-Tac Airport dealing with the influx of passengers and cargo begin and end with contracted workers.
Cuts in light of profit
Many of the estimated 4,000 contracted employees responsible for the daily operations of airport services have struggled to live on poverty-level wages, which have decreased in the last few years, while the airlines and airports continue to report yearly growth and profits. According to the Port of Seattle’s 2012 Budget and Business Plan, the airport has experienced positive year-over-year passenger growth each month since June 2010, despite the uncertain economy.
The Alaska Air group, which includes sister carrier Horizon Airlines, is responsible for 55 percent of all Sea-Tac landings and half of all passengers at the airport has reported over $4 billion in revenues, making the company the seventh largest carrier in the United States.
In 2005, nearly 500 Alaska Airlines ramp employees who earned an average hourly wage of $15.59 were terminated and replaced with staff contracted from Menzies, which paid its staff an average of $10.17 an hour. Even as profits increased for the airlines, contracted workers at Menzies experienced cuts on all levels, including cuts to their pay, which decreased to an estimated average of $9.66 seven years later.
“It’s hard physical work,” said Yahye Jama, a ramp worker at Sea-Tac contracted by Menzies. “We used to have crews of five to seven people loading each plane. Now it’s just four ramp workers to load each plane. [There] could be between 150 to 340 bags to load, each weighing up to 50 pounds.”
“At Menzies, you’re nothing. We work outside in the rain and cold, loading and unloading bags. We do important work, and we get treated with disrespect.”
Jama and other contracted workers share their stories on ItsOurAirport.com, a website dedicated to bringing awareness to the working conditions of these airport workers.
In May 2012, a report titled “First-class Airport, Poverty-class Jobs,” released by Puget Sound Sage, Working Washington, One America, and Faith Action Network, revealed that contracted workers at Sea-Tac are the lowest paid workers compared to other major West Coast airports, getting paid wages that fall well below a living wage for a single adult in Washington. These workers are contracted by companies like Menzies, AirServ, Swissport, and Bags Inc., which compete to provide services for airlines.
Injury to all
According to the “First-class” report, a majority of the airline workers fall into the already vulnerable group of immigrants and refugees taking on jobs with the hopes of a better life. A reported 64.4 percent of airline contractor employees are people of color, creating a workforce that is more diverse than King County, the city of Sea-Tac, and the airport at-large.
“Of the 2,800 or so contracted airline workers, many of them lack health insurance, many don’t make enough money to afford basic things like rent, having a car, and many work two or three jobs,” explained Jonathan Rosenblum, campaign director at Working Washington.
The lack of instability is another concern. During a recent contractor reshuffle at Delta Airlines, skycaps Alejandro Geracio, Hosea Wilcox, and Baltazar Pineda learned that they would lose their jobs. The three share a combined experience of more than 70 years. A photo of Wilcox on an ItsOurAirport.org billboard bears the caption, “Let’s make every job at Sea-Tac a good job.” However, after 31 years of serving travelers, Wilcox may soon be out of a job.
Working Washington is now working with other organizations and community members to help these three skycaps get their jobs back. Earlier this month, community members walked through Sea-Tac pushing Smart Carts with signs that call attention to the issue of the three skycap workers.
“[The case with] these three skycaps represent the insecurity that all workers face,” said Rosenblum. “We believe that an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Rubber hits the road
For OneAmerica, an organization working largely with immigrant communities, the issue extends beyond the effects on immigrants and even the airport.
“Part of what we see as the fall out of low wages is bad health, kids failing in school. That’s where the rubber hits the road in terms of the effects, when a family doesn’t have enough money to take care of themselves,” said OneAmerica Executive Director Pramila Jayapal.
“We feel that good wages and good jobs are central to so many of the basic rights and responsibilities that people have to live a good life.”
According to the “First-class” report, DSHS spent at least $6.3 million between 2006 and 2010 to provide medical services to an annual average of 1,101 airline-related workers and their dependents. By creating and sustaining a low-wage work force, the cost of providing for these workers’ needs falls to public health programs and social services.
Hopes for a resolution
As the Port of Seattle wraps up its centennial celebration, a coalition of organizations, including OneAmerica, Puget Sound Sage, Working Washington, Faith Action Network, and the Church Council of Greater Seattle, are hoping to have the Port focus on the issue of bettering jobs at the airport.
Currently, the Port of Seattle and the airlines have cited a lack of authority to instruct contractors on their policies towards workers.
After State Representative Dave Upthegrove and community members confronted Alaska Airlines executives at a shareholders meeting in May, the new Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden agreed to meet with community members, but a date has not yet been set.
“The Port [of Seattle] is the landlord. The airlines are the ones who hire the contractors. They have a lot of control over those contractors. They tell the contractors very explicitly the services they want, where they want them, and how they want them,” said Rosenblum. “At some point, somebody has to be the adult in the room and stand up and take the responsibility.”
Last year, proponents failed to pass House Bill 1832, which would have increased the stability for contracted employees and allowed airlines to better supervise the retention of workers. But the coalition of labor and social interest organizations, airport workers, and community members intend to keep pushing the Port of Seattle to begin dialogue on this issue.
“We’re trying to figure out how to work together to give the Port the authority to make sure that every job at the airport is a good job,” said Rosenblum.
“We are perplexed as to why the Port leadership would not want to do that. But on the other hand, when faced with the reality of poverty wage jobs at the airport, [they] say, ‘Well, we’re constrained.’ They ought to work with us to do something about this situation.” (end)
For more information, visit www.itsourairport.org.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.