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Airport worker Christopher McClain is struggling with healthcare costs, May 21, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Airport Workers Turn to Albany for Healthcare and Paid Leave Benefits

SHARE Airport Workers Turn to Albany for Healthcare and Paid Leave Benefits
SHARE Airport Workers Turn to Albany for Healthcare and Paid Leave Benefits

Fresh off their living-wage victory, local airport workers are petitioning Albany for healthcare and paid leave benefits that also would extend to other transportation employees.

Legislation introduced by state Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D–Bronx/Westchester) late Friday and that’s pending from Assemblymember Alicia Hyndman (D-Queens) would require contractors at LaGuardia and Kennedy airports to pay their workers a health insurance supplement that’s pegged to a current federal benchmark of $4.48 per hour.

An additional mandate for paid leave under those same federal Service Contract Act standards, which starts with 2 weeks of annual vacation after one year on the job, is included in the Senate bill targeting companies with 50 or more employees.

The benefits and pay rates for airport workers would be expanded to thousands of contract employees at Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and New York Stewart International Airport in Orange County. Long Island MacArthur Airport would not be covered.

Leaders and members of 32BJ local of the Service Employees International Union — which represents about 7,800 of the roughly 31,000 workers at the two Queens airports — say the benefits supplement is needed because contractors typically don’t offer affordable options for health care.

Héctor J. Figueroa, 32BJ union president, May 21, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When the companies do offer seemingly inexpensive options, the plans usually come with limited coverage and thousands of dollars in deductibles, union officials say.

“For us, it’s so irrational that this sector that’s been so vital to the economy, to the city, to the state, to the country — folks who work there don’t have health insurance,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ.

A Long-Fought Wage Hike

The new push comes after the airport workers, 32BJ and elected officials persuaded the Port Authority through years of advocacy to require airport contractors to pay a living wage to their employees — including wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and ticketing agents.

The minimums approved last year put city airport workers at $13.60 per hour in November 2018, with steady increases to $19 per hour in 2023. The workers had been earning $7.25 per hour in 2011, and now make $15 per hour under New York’s minimum wage laws. The pay rates at Newark Airport have been lower but will achieve parity with the next hike in September.

Union officials said 32BJ plans a similar legislative campaign for healthcare and leave benefits in New Jersey to cover airport workers in Newark.

Kennedy Airport customer service agent Christopher McClain said he’s been going without health insurance since January because his company, Hallmark Aviation Services, charges too much — about $220 per month for his plan. Outside insurance options also became too pricey as his wages rose, according to McClain.

He says his partner and three kids — ages 1, 9 and 10 — are covered under his partner’s plan. But he’s been rolling the dice because money’s tight.

“My kids still have to eat. The lights still have to stay on. The bills still have to be paid… so it’s either health insurance and tuna in a can, or no health insurance and everybody can have something to eat that they desire,” said McClain, who lives on Long Island. “I just feel I shouldn’t have to choose between healthcare and my kids having a Christmas. And that’s the reality.”

McClain is currently fighting a termination notice he received shortly after he spoke to THE CITY, though there’s no indication the action was related to the interview.

One Company Welcomes Bill

Philipp Huber, president of Hallmark Aviation Services, says his company’s least expensive health plan costs $111 per month. He did not immediately respond to a follow-up message seeking the coverage and deductible details of that plan.

Huber said he welcomes the legislation because it would create a level playing field among competing vendors.

“The airline business is a pretty cutthroat business and as soon as you have a letter in hand from the city or the Port Authority or whatever it is, you can actually go to your customers and say, ‘Sorry, this is what it is,’” he said. “Also, you have a level playing field from all suppliers.”

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City business coalition, said the measure is part of a flood of progressive demands on a newly Democratic-controlled legislature — and comes shortly before the end of the legislative session.

“In the current environment, there’s a series of wish lists of all the things that various advocates have ever wanted — they’re now trying it out in the state legislature,” she said. “I guess it’s easier to pass legislation than to negotiate collective bargaining agreements.”

Biaggi defended the multiple mandates the legislation would put on companies, saying the measure reflects the pressing needs of workers.

“[Their] employer-provided health care is totally unaffordable so they go without healthcare,” she said. “The bill ultimately is trying to create an opportunity… to have health insurance and to be covered. It helps them so they can stay in their jobs and there isn’t this immense turnover.”