CHICAGO, Ill. -- Every day she goes to work at O'Hare International Airport, Elda Burke faces the same dilemma.
Burke, 30, works as a passenger attendant at the airport, escorting the elderly and disabled to and from their gates by wheelchair. Even though the airlines describe this as a free service, Burke's employer has her working partly for tips, which is why her base pay is a low $6.50 an hour, somewhat like a restaurant server's, rather than the typical Illinois minimum wage of $8.25.
But unlike diners at a restaurant, many of the passengers Burke will be escorting on their holiday travels this week won't realize she's working for tips -- and by federal law, she won't be allowed to tell them.
"We cannot say anything," Burke says. "If we do that, they can fire us."
Burke works for Illinois-based Prospect Airport Services, Inc., a company that has contracts to supply service workers at O'Hare and other airports around the country. Prospect and similar contractors often pay their workers like Burke at a reduced rate before tips, which allows them to shift a portion of the salary burden to passengers. Such a pay scheme is perfectly legal, so long as the employer makes up the difference whenever a worker comes up short of the minimum wage after tips.
But several attendants at O'Hare claim their pay often works out to be less than the legal minimum, an issue that lies at the center of an ongoing unionization push among service workers at the airport. The Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize workers at O'Hare and Chicago's other airport, Midway International, this year.
SEIU officials say a union could help airport workers earn a living wage. They note that many have not seen raises in years and don't have paid vacation or sick days, even though they carry some security responsibilities, like checking the cleaning crews who enter planes. Burke says she started out at $5 per hour in 2002 and has only received a $1.50 pay bump in her nine years. She also says she has gone without health insurance the entire time because the company plan is too expensive.
"A lot of them are paid poverty wages, in some cases below the minimum wage, and they have no access to affordable health care insurance," says Izabela Miltko with SEIU Local 1. "They're organizing to have a dignified workforce and to win higher wages."
Tom Murphy, general counsel for Prospect, says that the company has been following all state and federal laws, and that the complaints from workers like Burke amount to "a union ruse." A handful of workers recently filed labor-law complaints against the company with the state labor department, though a subsequent inspection of the company by officials found that the company was in compliance with minimum-wage laws, Murphy notes.
"For years they've always gotten paid well more than the minimum wage," Murphy says. "Their paychecks match the law. I don't know what more we can do."
A labor department spokesperson says the state is currently investigating the allegations.
Workers who don't earn the minimum wage are supposed to fill out "tip sheets" detailing how much they earned in tips and how much they're owed by their employer, if anything. These sheets are rarely if ever filled out, Murphy says, because workers do in fact take home sufficient pay.
But Burke and some of her colleagues at O'Hare say many workers don't fill out tip sheets because they feel their supervisors won't deal with it or because they don't want to be seen as not pulling their weight. Several of them told HuffPost that they often don't earn the $1.75 in tips each hour that they're expected to. According to a survey of workers done by the SEIU, 86 percent said there was a time they didn't earn the minimum wage.
"A lot of people just stopped reporting their tips," says Aaron Crawford, a 20-year-old aspiring pilot who takes public transit to O'Hare from Chicago's South Side for each shift with the wheelchair. "They know it won't be taken care of."
Some workers attribute their low pay partly to the fact that they work in the international terminal, where many of the foreign travelers don't have the tipping customs of Americans. The federal Air Carrier Access Act that requires airlines to staff attendants for disabled and elderly travelers also prevents those attendants from soliciting tips or putting out tip jars.
Waldo Gucwa, a 22-year-old student who's been an attendant at O'Hare for three years, says that some workers who are desperate for tips try to artfully steer the conversation with passengers toward employment, in hopes that the passenger might ask if they can accept tips. Gucwa also says that many young, apparently able-bodied travelers seem to request wheelchair service as a way to bypass the lines at security, and often choose not to tip at the end of the ride. The attendants are forbidden from asking a passenger if he or she is actually disabled.
"There are days you leave here with 7 bucks, 8 bucks" in tips, says Gucwa, who said he supports the idea of a union. "When you go home and do the math, you're not even getting the minimum wage, and that's the reason people are getting real riled up around here."
The O'Hare workers aren't the first to say they're earning less than the minimum wage escorting passengers. Last year a group of 20 workers who drive passenger carts at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport sued Prospect. The workers claimed the company had switched them to a tipped pay schedule because it had put in a low bid on the airport contract and could no longer afford to pay the full minimum wage, according to the suit. The workers said they did not "customarily" receive tips and were required to do odd jobs on top of escorting passengers.
Worker paychecks, the complaint alleged, were "extremely confusing" and often led to a wage below the federal and state minimums. Workers said they stopped reporting their low tips because they feared losing their jobs. Prospect denied the allegations and the case was settled, according to court documents.
This summer, wheelchair escorts at Bush International Airport in Houston lodged similar allegations against their employer, Nashville-based PrimeFlight Aviation Services. The workers were earning between $5.25 and $6.35 per hour before tips, and some told the Houston Chronicle that they were pressured to pad their tips out of fear they'd be punished or lose their jobs if their employer had to pay them more.
One worker told the paper she reports $80 worth of false tips each month, nonexistent earnings that she would be paying taxes on. PrimeFlight was receiving state funding for its workforce -- up to $2,000 per employee -- but the company was recently suspended from the subsidy program, the Chronicle reported earlier this month.
Keisha Davis, a passenger attendant at O'Hare, says she's been trying to raise her two-year-old twins on her salary, but she can't do it without food stamps and Medicaid. She says she was earning more money when she was pregnant, taken off wheelchair duties and paid a flat rate of $8.25 per hour. Now that she's escorting passengers again, she too says her tips don't boost her pay to where it needs to be.
"We really couldn't make it without government assistance," Davis says. "It's like living from paycheck to paycheck to paycheck. ... At the end, there's nothing left."