June 25, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY – Imagine putting in 40 hours a week at your job, but still not earning enough to get off of public assistance. Some of the most powerful and influential elected officials in New York State call that situation unacceptable and "un-American" – but that's just life for far too many low-wage workers at New York City airports.
"I've been on public assistance for quite some time, and I still don't make enough to independently move away from it," Shareeka Elliott told LaborPress on Wednesday. "It makes me feel horrible."
The 28-year-old mother of two from East New York has worked as a full-time terminal cleaner at LaGuardia Airport for more than two years, but still finds herself crossing her fingers each month and "hoping everything goes okay with food stamps."
Half of all airport workers now qualify for some form of public assistance, while 1 in 5 routinely skip at least one meal a week in an effort to make ends meet, according to 32BJ SEIU – the union fighting on behalf of chronically low-wage earners at area travel hubs.
This week, the union joined with the NYC Coalition Against Hunger and Make The Road New York for a rally held across the street from LaGuardia Airport.
"It makes no sense to live in poverty when you put in 40 hours a week," said Juan Chapman, a 59-year-old airport security guard who also relies on public assistance to get by. "It makes me feel terrible because I work really hard. As soon as we get decent pay, I will go out of public assistance. I don't want to rely on the city. I want to earn my life by myself."
Gail Woodard, a hostess at LaGuardia Airport's Terminal 1 who faces a more than one-hour commute home each night after her shift ends at 2 a.m., found out just this week that she, too, is eligible for public assistance.
"They say they're going to give us a raise, but right now we're still waiting," the Jamaica resident said.
More than a year ago, after a job action held outside LaGuardia Airport on Martin Luther King Day in which at least 33 were arrested, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey announced its plan to introduce an enhanced wage and benefits package for workers by September 30, 2014.
They're still waiting.
"LaGuardia Airport is the largest sweatshop in New York City," 32 BJ SEIU Vice-President Rob Hill said. "It may be new and improved, but it has the same 19th century mentality about how you treat workers."
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman took the Port Authority to task, saying that tax payers are underwriting bad employers every time a full-time worker signs up for food assistance.
"No one should work full-time and still be eligible for poverty benefits that are designed for people who are too poor to support themselves," the attorney general said.
Shirley Aldebol, 32BJ vice-president, said that high-flying airlines and their contractors should simply be ashamed of themselves.
"It is shameful that they get millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies and they don't pay a decent wage to the workers who clean, maintain and secure their airports," Aldebol said. "They could not run this airport without you."
According to Woodard, airport workers like her are now also expected to do the job of two employees, and face penalties if they stay longer to complete their shifts.
"Workers are penalized for leaving late, but it's too much work for one person to do, so I try not to take breaks and just hustle to get out," Woodard said. "It's very hard."