"Impossible" Wages Keep Broward Airport Employees Working Through the Holidays

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Every Thanksgiving, Stevenson Tibel shows up at Fort Lauderdale International Airport for his work as a wheelchair attendant; a job that pays him so little he can't afford to miss a single shift.

On a day of family and celebration, Tibel will be working while his wife and ten-year-old son are eating Thanksgiving dinner, just like he has for the past six years. He has no other choice but to work through the holiday. "I don't have vacation pay, I don't have days off, I don't have sick day pay... I'm just working to survive."

It's hard for him, he says, to witness all of the people flying into Fort Lauderdale to spend the break with their loved ones. "It's very painful. You see all these passengers arriving to spend their holiday with their family, smiling and so happy... but you can't afford to take the day off."

Tibel's story isn't an isolated one. He joins a slew of other South Florida airport workers who have been speaking up against "impossible" wage pay. Fighting alongside the Florida chapter of national union 32BJ SEIU (Service Employees International Union), airport employees like Tibel seek to raise the Broward living wage. As of 2018, the Broward base living wage is $12.38 per hour, and the wage inclusive of health insurance is $13.98. According to a recently published report from the Fort Lauderdale Airport Commission, the current number isn't enough to keep subcontracted workers out of poverty.

Back in 2002, the County Commission passed the living wage Ordinance, which affirmed that, "certain private companies subject to this ordinance should provide their employees and/or subcontracted employees nothing less than a living wage at 110% of the Federal Poverty Guideline." Inflation rates for the surrounding areas played into this figure, and wages for public employees and subcontracted workers following this law were above the living wage for six years. Then, in 2008, The Great Recession barreled over Broward County and hit it hard. Caps were put in place for these annual increases, and even with the end of the recession in 2010, the caps on wage increases remained.

Florida law prohibits cities and counties from raising the minimum wage for all workers, but the legality does not extend to public service or subcontracted public employees. Spokesperson Ana Tinsly for the Florida division of 32BJ SEIU argues this point: "Because the airport is owned and operated by the County, airport workers are technically providing services to the county and are thus covered."

Right now, the Miami-Dade living wage is $13.23 per hour with health benefits and $16.40 without. Comparatively speaking, Broward’s living wage is $0.85 less per hour inclusive of health benefits and $2.42 less without. According to 32BJ, this substantial gap of pay between counties doesn't make sense. "At the very least, the low end of the wage should be 110% of the federal poverty level," says Tinsly.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website stipulates that the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four are leveled at $25,100, making $27,610 the nationwide level for 110% of earnings. Based on a survey conducted by the Fort Lauderdale Airport Coalition, FLL airport and security workers make an aggregated $24,164 annually.

The 32BJ SEIU represents Fort Lauderdale and Miami airport workers. Stemming from the international SEIUC, the U.S. chapters amount to upwards of 160,000 members — more than 5,000 of these based out of Broward. Wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, and other airport workers are among the individuals they organize and repeatedly protest for.

"Those airports are sensitive areas, dangerous areas," says Ana Tinsly, before referencing the mass shooting at FLL airport last year. "A lot of the times, these airport workers act as first responders, so they're asking, at the very least, to have decent wages."

Of the 101 airport workers the Fort Lauderdale Airport Coalition surveyed in 2018, 49% live below the federal poverty rate for a family of four, the majority spend 50% of their income on housing, 75% can’t afford to live on their own and 64% have trouble paying bills.

It's been over a year since the County Commission had their first meeting about increasing Broward's living wage. In that time, motions have passed, but unions like the SEIU have been stonewalled on getting to the actual bill. "People are frustrated, it's been a long time they've been waiting for a wage increase," explains SEIU's Tinsly.

Increasing Broward's living wage is a process that Commissioner Nan Rich calls "long-overdue." "The crux of this is that we've been doing this for over a year now." The Commissioner indicates how she filed the first motion to direct in November of 2017 through the County Attorney for an ordinance to increase the living wage. "I can understand why the SEIU and other groups involved in this are anxious about it, because it's just taking way too long to get to this point."

As it stands, the County Commission is set to meet again in December to determine the particulars of the proposed ordinance once adopted, such as the speed/system of the proposed base living wage increase and to review the healthcare benefit amount. "We just can't wait any longer because there are so many workers that can't provide for their families."

By the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition, if a resident spends more than 30% of their wage on housing, that makes them cost-burdened. "Over 58% of Broward residents are cost-burdened, which is what makes us one of the most cost-burdened metropolitan areas in the United States. But you can't fix the affordable housing problem without increasing the living wage." Rich says that's why its "so critical" to get this done and "put Broward back on the track."

Tinsly reinforces this viewpoint, pointing out how the union has been calling on the county to increase the living wage with strong support from commissioners like Rich, but that the process has been "achingly slow," with severe consequences for airport workers. "For every month they wait, that’s another shift they have to pick up, another bill they have to put off, or another month of having to choose between buying food or paying for medicine. It also means many of these workers are forced to work holidays and extra hours, just so they can survive."

The union is also requesting Broward County prioritizes increasing the health care differential to match the lowest employer contribution offered to its employees, which is $3.44. "How is it that they allow other companies, like the airline contractors operating at FLL, to get away with contributing only $1.61 to their health plans? Enough with the double standard. The County must mandate this in the Living Wage Ordinance."

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