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SEIU Local 1 beefs about ‘rampant wage theft’ at O’Hare

Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, is shown in May announcing bipartisan resolution calling for the issue of an elected independent airport authority to be included on the Nov. 8 ballot. It eventually was booted off the ballot through some legislative maneuvering. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s allies have used a parliamentary trick to crowd off the ballot a referendum asking Chicago voters whether they want to strip the mayor of his authority over O’Hare and Midway airports.

But that doesn’t mean the powerful Service Employees International Union Local 1 is done fighting for what it calls “fair wages” at O’Hare for contract employees who lack union representation.

On Wednesday, SEIU Local 1 and its City Council allies will hold a news conference to demand that the Illinois Department of Labor and the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection investigate “rampant wage theft” from hundreds of airport employees who draw their paychecks from private contractors.

Union spokesperson Izabela Miltko-Ivkovich said the “theft” by private contractors includes everything from failing to make up the difference for tipped employees whose gratuities leave them short of the city’s minimum wage to failing to pay employees who work through their lunch breaks and before and after their regular shifts.

Miltko-Ivkovich cited a survey of roughly 300 airport employees conducted for the union in July. Responding employees work as baggage handlers, security officers, janitors and passenger service assistants pushing travelers in wheelchairs.

“It appears there is rampant wage theft at one of the busiest airports in the world. The wage that tipped employees earn is $5.95-a-hour. If tips don’t bring them up to $10.50-an-hour, the employer is supposed to make up that difference. But what we found is that tipped workers make as little as $5.50-an-hour and almost 90 percent reported earning less than $8.25-an-hour,” she said.

Other survey results:

  • 39 percent worked through lunch breaks without pay.
  • 34 percent worked before clocking in or after clocking out and were not paid for that time.
  • 46 percent of tipped workers said employers did not make up a shortfall between their paycheck and the city minimum wage.

Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1, is expected to be joined at the City Hall news conference by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, and by Hispanic Caucus Chairman George Cardenas (12th).

Six other aldermen are also expected to attend: Proco Joe Moreno (1st); David Moore (17th); Ricardo Munoz (22nd); Chris Taliaferro (29th); Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) and John Arena (45th).

Balanoff is a frequent Emanuel critic whose union represents about 1,000 workers at O’Hare and Midway, including janitors and baggage handlers.

He has railed for years about the low wages being paid to airport workers while political insiders collect multimillion-dollar paydays for concessions and construction work at the two airports.

One of Balanoff’s favorite targets is the contract Emanuel signed three years ago with United Maintenance, which replaced some 300 union janitorial workers. The union says that deal was tainted by a United Maintenance executive’s ties to organized crime.

Contractors now being accused of “rampant wage theft” include: janitorial contractor Scrub Inc.; Prospect Airport Services, representing wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers; and Universal Security, representing security officers.

“We’ve had issues with some of these contractors, but we don’t represent these workers. These are non-union workers we’ve surveyed. Eventually, we hope to represent them and bring their wages up,” Miltko-Ivkovich said.

“Having union protection would be a way to keep the contractors in check and make sure employees are making minimum wages. At this point, I wouldn’t call it the Wild West, but it’s close to it in terms of how contractors are being regulated. We have one worker being paid in personal checks with no itemized record of what they are being paid for.”

Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer and Mike Stambaugh from the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection could not be reached for comment on the wage theft claims.

SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff has long complained about the treatment of workers at the city’s airports. Here he is shown at a 2002 rally outside O’Hare International  Airport to highlight the plight of the security workers at both O’Hare and Midway
SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff has long complained about the treatment of workers at the city’s airports. Here he is shown at a 2002 rally outside O’Hare International Airport to highlight the plight of the security workers at both O’Hare and Midway airports. | Sun-Times file photo