Wage Theft at NYC Airports

As we approach Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, many of us will be celebrating this national hero's fight against racial injustice. Equally important, though less remembered, was Dr. King's commitment to economic justice -- the simple idea of a fair wage for a hard day's work.

On MLK Day one year ago I stood up with airport workers who were carrying on this mission, demanding basic protections and a wage that would no longer keep them in poverty. It was a proud moment when we learned, just a few days later, that the Port Authority would set a $10.10 minimum wage at the airport.

But, as always, there is more work to be done.

All too often workers at the region's airports are not paid for all the hours they've worked, are shorted on their wages, or suffer other wage and labor violations. Workers at JFK airport serve an astounding 138,000 passengers on an average day, with each traveler anxiously trying to make their flight, their connection, or to get home as soon as possible. It is the unsung workers behind the scenes -- handling baggage, cleaning airplanes and the terminals, providing security -- that make it possible.

In the past, these workers were employed directly by the airlines, but today these services are largely contracted out. This reliance on subcontractors leaves workers more vulnerable to wage and labor violations, and unfortunately at the region's three major airports these violations are widespread. 40 percent of workers at JFK, La Guardia, and Newark airports say they've been shorted on their paycheck.

Nearly half of all tipped workers say their supervisor forced them to report a certain amount in tips, even if their actual earnings were lower. This illegal practice allows the employer to avoid paying the difference between the worker's tipped wage and the minimum wage. Practically all subcontracted workers earning minimum wage also say that their employer did not pay them their uniform maintenance fee as required by law. These weekly fees can add up to $517 a year, a significant hardship for workers already earning low wages.

All told, 88 percent of subcontracted passenger service workers reported that they had experienced at least some form of wage violation over the past year, and just under half said they had suffered at least three violations. Not only is this behavior on the part of employers illegal, it is unscrupulous and immoral. Wage violations are tantamount to theft.

Last September, I stood up with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as he announced a $925,000 settlement against one of these contractors, which in some instances had been paying its skycap workers as little as $3.90 an hour. This settlement was an important victory for the victimized employees, but enforcement like this is only one part of the solution. We must also stop this type of behavior at the root.

This is why I am calling on the Port Authority, which owns and manages the airports, to take action and ensure passenger service workers are not subject to wage theft. The Port Authority should let these contractors know that they will lose the privilege of operating at the airport if they are found to violate wage and labor laws. The Authority should also communicate to the airlines that they have the responsibility to prevent wage theft among their subcontracted workforce.

In the past the Port Authority has acted commendably to improve the working conditions of subcontracted workers. The Authority's board voted last year to pass a resolution calling on employers to set a $10.10 minimum wage. Now the Authority must act again to stop the unscrupulous contractors that have come into the habit of stealing money out of their workers' pockets.

I am confident that the Port Authority will want to act quickly and protect the workers that are vital to the airports' daily operations. We may not be able to make working at the airport stress-free, but we can at least give these workers the security of knowing they will be paid their due.