The fight for better wages: employed, in college and living in a homeless shelter | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
on November 14, 2015

By Benyamin Morte

I'm an airport worker, community college student at Essex County College and I live in a shelter in Newark (the name has been withheld for safety reasons). I'm also among the 64 million Americans who earn less than $15 per hour. Last week, I joined fast food workers, airport workers and home care workers from across the country to demand dignity.

The Fight for $15 has gained momentum and support from elected officials and the public, partly because as a country we cannot continue to ignore the fate of millions who struggle every day to put food on the table and find it difficult to believe the future will be better. And the fact is that the future won't be better for those 64 million unless we act together to change the course of history.

I work at Newark Liberty International Airport as a cabin cleaner for a contractor called PrimeFlight Aviation Services, but I don't make nearly enough money to buy a ticket to ride the planes I clean every day. My typical paycheck every two weeks is $630. That doesn't add up to much when you consider the average rental for a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey is about $1,300 per month. Because I earn poverty wages, I am homeless. And it's not just me. Several other employees who work at Newark Liberty International Airport live in the same shelter where I live.

Living in a shelter at age 22 is difficult. Instead of playing video games and hanging out with friends, I live with constant anxiety. Every day I worry if I will have money for dinner or whether I will have enough change in my pocket to pay for a bus ride to work. A good job with a living wage could improve my life and millions of other low wage workers who now live on the brink.

Airport jobs used to be good jobs but that has changed since airlines began outsourcing to the lowest bidder for services such as cleaning cabins. And the impact on employees has been devastating. Between 1991 and 2011, average weekly wages in the airport operations industry generally fell 14 percent. Some contractors in this industry have troubling track records. My employer, PrimeFlight Aviation Services, which contracts with United Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport and 48 other airports across the country, has a history of wage and hour claims being filed by employees. Since 2005, total settlements, back wages and penalties for these violations exceed $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, the airlines that utilize contractors are making record profits. From 2000 to 2014, United Airlines' net income increased by $2,853,000,000. But airport employees continue to make poverty wages.

Airline passengers don't seem to be better off. Passenger complaints were up 20 percent in the first half of 2015, according to a report in USA Today which cited statistics from the United States Transportation Department. Cancellations, delays and missed connections topped the list of passenger complaints in the news report. Two giants in the industry – American and United Airlines – received the most complaints.
Clearly something needs to be done to improve the situation at our airports, for both the workers in the airports and for passengers. For more than a year, contracted airport workers from our region's big three airports, Newark, John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport have been calling on officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to release its promised plan for higher wages and benefits. And because thousands of airport workers banded together, the Port Authority initially raised wages to $9 and then again to $10.10. This is an important first step, but not nearly enough. We need family-sustaining wages, quality benefits and a real voice on the job. The inaction on the part of the commissioners from this bistate agency is leaving 12,000 airport workers and their families in poverty.

This is why airport workers, health-care employees, adjunct professors and a host of other low-wage workers across the country have joined fast food employees in their quest for a $15 minimum wage.

Because people who work for a living ought to be able to make a living, and not be forced to live in a shelter.

Benyamin Morte is a student at Essex County College and employee of PrimeFlight Aviation Services.

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