Airport Workers Make Plea For Living Wage (VIDEO) [Progress Illinois]

Chicago airport workers face difficult times ahead with new contract negotiations for concession and passenger service employees up in the air. Midway and O’Hare International Airports serve millions of people each year, generating billions of dollars for participating corporations and the City of Chicago. Yet, many of the people making travel easier for airline passengers earn wages below living or even poverty levels.

Chicago airport workers face difficult times ahead with new contract negotiations for concession and passenger service employees up in the air. Midway and O’Hare International Airports serve millions of people each year, generating billions of dollars for participating corporations and the City of Chicago. Yet, many of the people making travel easier for airline passengers earn wages below living or even poverty levels.

“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,” said Elda Pedraza. She is one of many working for Prospect Aviation Services at O’Hare airport. If employees do not make up the difference between their hourly wages and the state’s minimum wage of $8.25 through tips, the company is required by law to pay the difference. A study by the University of Illinois is currently digging deeper into the issue, but many workers report they are not fairly compensated.

Companies are able to skirt the law because the burden is on workers to report the injustice to proper authorities. In Illinois, the Department of Labor, headed by Joe Costigan, serves as the enforcement agency. At a forum yesterday on the impact of low-wage jobs at the airports put on by SEIU*, Arise Chicago and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Costigan dodged a question on the effects of being underfunded and understaffed in investigating claims that companies are breaking the law in this manner. He did state, however, that the budget for the department has been chopped by 25 percent since 2008, making enforcement even more difficult.

While Chicago airports provide thousands of jobs for city residents, employee wages lag behind their West Coast counterparts.

“Airports on the west coast like LAX, SFO and San Jose have for years been guaranteeing living wages for airport workers,” said Paul Sonn, co-director of the National Employment Law Project. “They’ve found that it’s improved airport security and workers’ lives, without harming competition.”

Maria Iniguez, a 50 year-old mother of three and server at Wolfgang Puck restaurant, says she takes pride in her work, but is afraid of what will happen. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has set his sights on revamping concessions at the airports with a multi-billion dollar deal. More than 1,500 workers livelihoods are at risk.

According to Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), 19 other alderman have joined him in support of the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports ordinance, which he proposed this week. If passed, employers would be required to pay a living wage of roughly $11.18 per hour.

Unite Here Local 1 represents many of the concession workers at the airports. The union and companies are nearing the expiration of their current contracts and must begin negotiations shortly. The union claims 70 percent of concessions at the two major airports are controlled by companies based overseas that are pocketing millions in profits while workers are left with little.

At a Wednesday press conference on the issue, Midway airport employee Jerry Ward fired up the audience when talking about his experiences and the need for a living wage. He makes $10 an hour, which he points out is less than the cost of some of the sandwiches being sold at the airport.

In addition to requiring a living wage, the new contractors would also have to provide current workers a 90-day trial period to keep their jobs under the Stable Jobs, Stable Airports ordinance.

Alderman Pat Dowell introduced the Good Jobs, Quality Services: Responsible Bidder in Services Contracts Ordinance last month, which would push contractors to pay a prevailing wage in accordance with the Illinois Procurement Code. It has the support of more than 30 aldermen, but currently sits in committee.

Both ordinances are further steps in the push for living wages in Chicago. A few years ago, the City Council lacked the muscle to override a mayoral veto on the big box ordinance and now they are fighting for fair wages at the airports. A citywide living wage could strengthen the working class and the local economy. Ald. Toni Foulkes (15th), a former retail worker herself, believes people need to talk more to their representatives.

“When you see that human face it makes a world of difference,” said Foulkes. “I believe they should be more aggressive, getting out and meeting the aldermen.”

Chicago might be one of the greatest cities in the nation, but it is also home to the third-highest poverty rate, second-highest foreclosure rate, and the highest level of income disparity between black and white workers.

“The rates are high because they are trapped in poverty jobs,” said Alie Kabba, board president of the Illinois Council for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

* The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this web site.

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