NY Airport Workers Live Below Poverty Line

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(New York, NY -- Alex Goldmark) About a quarter of employees who work in New York area airports — including some who have jobs in security — make wages that are below the poverty line, according to a new study released this week.

Workers at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports who screen luggage, check tickets, clean airport bathrooms and assist customers in wheelchairs earn, on average, $16,640 a year, according to a study released Wednesday by NYU's Women of Color Policy Network and the Wagner School of Public Service. That's 25 percent below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

Area airports employ about 67,000 people. Of those, nearly 17,000 are what's known as passenger service workers — almost all of whom work for companies contracted by airlines. Researchers surveyed 300 of these workers, who are predominantly people of color, and found that the average wage was $8 an hour and the most common wage earned by these workers was the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Noting that 20 percent of those surveyed report being on government assistance such as food stamps, study author Nicole Mason said, "this means the public is paying twice" for these services: Once in the price of an airline ticket, and then in taxes that go to the social programs these employees frequently rely on.

Lakisha Williams, 29, has been working at Newark Airport for eight years. She started off as a baggage pre-screener and is now a wheelchair attendant. She said she pays for rent with Section 8 vouchers, uses food stamps and is on Medicaid.

"Basically I've just been at the airport for eight years for making the same minimum wage, $7.25," Williams said. "It's very unfair... I mean I have a 12-year-old daughter. She is very expensive, very expensive. I have to sit her down and let her know, tell her mommy is doing her best."

Study authors point out that workers employed by companies contracted by the Port Authority — the agency in charge of the airports — earned more than those who work for companies contracted by airlines. They blame the low wages on a practice by the airlines that awards contracts to the lowest bidder.

The head of the Port Authority, Patrick Foye, said he had not read the report, but has directed his staff to review it to see if there are any actions the agency should take in response. He expressed support for union hiring, touting his own experience as a union member in high school.

Full time workers union workers earn 29 percent higher wages nationally, than non-union workers he pointed out. Sixty-eight percent of Port Authority workers are represented by 13 different unions, he pointed out.