Orlando airport’s contract workers seek better pay to afford living here

When unaccompanied minors fly with Delta Air Lines into Orlando International Airport, Anna Vazquez lends a hand.

Earlier this summer, a 5-year-old traveler complained of being hungry and cold while waiting four hours for pickup, so Vazquez, 59, said she spent $28 — more than double her $13 hourly wage — to buy her chicken tenders and a blanket from airport concessions.

Vazquez said she strives to give every effort as an attendant for unaccompanied minors and travelers who use wheelchairs, even though she cannot treat all passengers with the same generosity. But she has found it harder to do that as she reaches five years in her contract job without a raise, health insurance or paid time off.

“We are the face of the airline. We need to be respected, and we need to be paid so we can work better,” Vazquez said.

Contract workers like Vazquez shared similar stories of how low pay and lack of benefits have made it increasingly harder for them to afford basic necessities. Such employees also fill roles in sanitation and baggage handling, among others.

Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents over 18,000 workers at the East Coast’s major airports, released Wednesday a survey that found contract workers at Florida’s largest airports overwhelmingly lack a livable wage and benefits.

The situation poses a safety and security threat to passengers and other employees at Florida’s airports, according to the union. Exhausted and sick employees are poorly equipped to recognize and address threats, and high turnover means fewer workers have the experience to respond to hazards, it argued.

The union wants airlines to require their contractors pay employees more and offer better benefits, and it is pushing for national, state and local legislation to that end.

The Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate in June, would require airports to pay all workers at least $15 an hour with benefits to receive federal infrastructure grants. The Orlando airport recently won a $50 million grant from the federal government.

The union is also urging Gov. Ron DeSantis and state legislators to eliminate local wage pre-emption laws and call on airlines to improve their pay.

“These airports serve as economic engines for those metro areas ... you’d think that the jobs connected to these engines would be good ones,” said Helene O’Brien, Florida director for 32BJ SEIU.

Spokespeople for the Orlando International Airport and DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

In an unsigned statement, a spokesperson for Delta said the company leads the industry in its employee compensation and benefits, and it requires its vendors to “provide fair and competitive compensation and maintain a proper working environment.”

At a press conference announcing the report’s release, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, said he supported the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act.

“As we’re funding these improvements, we have to make sure that those airports, those airlines, that are accessing these federal funds are paying prevailing wages,” he said, referring to federal infrastructure funding.

According to the union’s survey, about 85% of contract workers statewide spend more than 30% of their income on housing, which the report says makes it unaffordable for them.

At OIA, workers earn an average of $11.78 an hour and spend an overwhelming 63% of their income on housing. They would need to earn at least $23.79 an hour to afford fair market rent here, the union said.

Thirty-eight percent of workers statewide live with someone other than a partner or spouse because they cannot afford to live alone. This is the case for Vazquez, who recently had to sell most of her possessions and move in with her daughter and grandchild.

Eighty-five percent of workers statewide, and 82% at OIA, said they had trouble paying their bills.

Additionally, 90% of workers said they lacked paid sick leave and 83% reported coming to work sick. In Orlando, 94% of workers have no paid sick days, according to the union. Seventy-nine percent of employees statewide said they lack paid vacation or personal days.

Contract positions have high turnover as a result — 92% of workers said many of their coworkers were quitting, primarily in search of higher pay and benefits. The union’s report said Orlando’s workers have just 1.6 years of experience at the airport on average, lower than the four-year average in South Florida, where wages are higher due to living wage ordinances.

The study is the union’s first to include viewpoints from Florida’s four largest airports: Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, O’Brien said.

“We’re hoping that the public realizes that the reason their trips didn’t go so smoothly was because of understaffing because of low wages and crappy jobs at their airport, despite their tax dollars going to the airline industry,” she said.

Enrique Lopezlira, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, said research in the airline industry and others shows improving worker pay boosts productivity, performance and safety.

A Labor Center study on the San Francisco International Airport, cited by the Florida union in its report, found higher employee wages led to lower turnover and better performance. Workers who stayed at their jobs longer also had the experience to better avoid mistakes and identify safety and security issues, Lopezlira said.

“The idea that workers don’t want to work is not correct,” he said. “Workers want to work, they just want to work in an environment that values their productivity, allows them to make a living and provide for their families and doesn’t put them at risk for their health and safety.”

Many workers in low-paying jobs are women, workers of color and immigrants, he said.

Anjanette Reyes, a wheelchair attendant for Delta, has worked at the Orlando airport for four years. She changed contract jobs during that time in search of better pay and said she went from making $9 an hour with Virgin Atlantic to $14 with Delta after a recent raise.

Though she’s looked for jobs at other companies, Reyes, 55, said she cannot afford to work elsewhere because she lives close to the airport and does not have her own car. She injured her shoulder pushing passenger wheelchairs last summer and had to return to work after two weeks to pay her bills.

“I don’t know how long I’ll be at the airport,” she said. “Everyone is looking for something better. It’s not easy here in Florida.”

krice@orlandosentinel.com and @katievrice on Twitter