This 52-year-old with deep circles under his eyes pushes wheelchairs at Terminal B at La Guardia Airport. He made $7.25 an hour until his company, PrimeFlight, cut him to $6.15. Why, he asked. Sometimes you will get a tip, they explained. He recently lifted a 350-pound passenger. His back locked up and he walks askew. His arms grow numb from tendinitis. “My life is not easy but they tell me there are a thousand out there who would take my job.” He shrugs. “My story, it is the story of a lot of people who work here.”
There are 15,000 Mr. Echeverris at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s three major airports, those sprawling empires of tarmac. They scrub toilets, climb into baggage bins and under seats, restock food, haul bags and polish bathroom doors and seatbelts to a glinting shine.... [The] workers who labor at these taxpayer-subsidized airports. Workers such as these once worked directly for the airlines and had unions, vacations and pensions. Now they are perfect 21st-century employees, which is to say they are like cars stripped to their ball bearings. They have no benefits, no vacation, no raises.
Go read the whole thing. It's absolutely infuriating—particularly the slimy spokesperson for United Airlines, Meghan McCarthy, who insists that the airlines, which used to employ (and pay somewhat decent wages to) the people who cleaned their airplanes, restocked food, and hauled bags, have no control whatsoever over the wages that are now paid to people like Mr. Echeverris by private contractors. (And that's bullshit, as the reporter notes: "If a union successfully organizes one company, the airlines switch to a nonunion contractor." So the airlines are actively driving down the wages of airport employees.) And it doesn't have to be this way at La Guardia, JFK, or Seatac:
Thirteen years ago, San Francisco International Airport raised the minimum wage for all airport employees, including wheelchair operators, baggage handlers, and ramp and airline ground workers. They get a minimum of $12.93 per hour, with 12 paid days off per year, and health coverage from employers.
San Francisco International Airport proves that it really doesn't have to be this way—an airport and the airlines and their contractors can pay (or be forced to pay) wheelchair operators like Mr. Echeverris a decent wage without the airport shutting down. (Cutting the man's pay to $6.15 because he might get a tip once in a while?!? I fly a lot and I've never once seen a granny in a wheelchair tip the poor bastard who pushed her through the airport.) That's the part that made my blood boil.
Now here's the part that makes my blood run cold: What about the security risk?
If I was paid slave wages to work at an airport—never had a raise, no health insurance, not one fucking day off, my measly hourly rate slashed one day because I might get a tip once a year—I would hate the airport, I would hate the airlines, and I would hate every last motherfucker in the airport who brushed past me in a hurry to board a flight. And if someone came along and offered me enough money to, say, fly home and take care of my dying wife in exchange for access to the airport (Mr. Echeverris's wife is dying of cancer in Columbia)... or access to the airplanes... or for information about accessing the secure areas of the airport... I would be sorely tempted to take the money. Because why not? No one at the airport—no one who runs the airport, no one who runs the airlines, no one who runs past me to get on a plane—gives a flying fuck about me. Why should I give a flying fuck about them? So we shouldn't be shocked when shit like this happens.
And far worse could happen. Any terrorist group that wanted to take down a US airport—or hijack a few planes—would be smart to look for recruits among the army of low-paid workers who are treated like garbage by the airlines and the airports. One or two of the 15,000 people currently being worked to death at New York City's airports—or right here at our fucking airport—just might be angry and resentful enough to help 'em out.