Thursday, October 6, 2011

Service workers, policymakers, and faith leaders hold forum on the effects of poverty-wage jobs at Chicago’s airports

Days after Mayor Emanuel’s closed-door meeting with airline executives…

From SEIU Local 1

Chicago—On Thursday, October 6th, airport service workers, along with clergy from ARISE Chicago and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) hosted a forum on the far-reaching effects of low wage jobs at Chicago’s world-class airports.

Passenger service workers at O’Hare and Midway airports—the majority of whom are immigrants and minorities—are paid so little that most are forced to rely on public assistance programs like food stamps and welfare to survive. Many are paid below the legal minimum wage. Low wage jobs like these contribute to increased poverty, crime, and foreclosures. Chicago currently has the 3rd highest poverty rate of any major city; the second highest foreclosure rate; and the highest level of income disparity between white and black workers.

Forum participants included airport service workers, nationally renowned policymakers, and community leaders. Paul Sonn, Co-Director of the National Employment Law Project, opened the forum with a keynote address on the effects of low wage airport jobs on communities and on airport operations. He kicked off a discussion on how policy changes might help to alleviate some of these effects.

“Airports on the West Coast like LAX, SFO and San Jose have for years been guaranteeing living wages for airport workers,” Sonn says. “They've found that it's improved airport security and workers' lives, without harming competition."

Passenger service workers at O’Hare report that they are often paid below minimum wage and bring home as little as $10,000 a year. The contractors that employ these workers often classify them as “tipped” employees; however, many passengers believe this is a free service as required by the Air Carrier Access Act and do not tip.

Elda Pedraza, an employee of Prospect Aviation Services at O’Hare airport, explains: “They pay me $6.50 an hour because, supposedly, ours are tipped jobs; however, we cannot let the passengers know this and many of them are not aware of it. There are days when we do not make any tips.”

Workers report that when their wages plus tips falls below the minimum wage, contractors like Prospect often do not make up the difference as required by law. The University of Illinois is currently conducting a survey of airport service workers to look into this issue. The study will attempt to assess the quality of working conditions and measure employer adherence to state and federal laws governing the workplace.

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