Marlen Garcia: Where’s the fair deal for airline janitors?

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Refugees who make it to the United States usually arrive with little to their names. They are lucky to escape their native countries with their lives.

In their new American lives, some get exploited.

If you’re a frequent traveler, you’ve seen some of these refugees. They make up cleaning crews who board planes to clean after passengers exit. It’s custodial work, which is honorable. My father raised seven kids working as a custodian for American Airlines at O’Hare. Back then, employee benefits were top-notch.

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I’ve written before about those benefits. We had excellent health coverage and free flights for years on American. My dad also had a limited medical policy in retirement, a pension and lifetime flight benefits. He could go anywhere in the world, paying only taxes on his airfare. Most important, he got paid for every hour he worked. He also belonged to a union.

Sometime after his retirement in the 1990s, American and other airlines started contracting out janitorial work. Some custodians, as well as wheelchair attendants and low-level security personnel, today tell troubling stories of wage theft by companies such as Chicago-based Scrub Inc. and Prospect Airport Services in Des Plaines.

Several aldermen and the Service Employees International Union are urging Mayor Rahm Emanuel to pressure the airlines for accountability from Scrub and Prospect. SEIU, which wants to bring these workers into their fold, is filing a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor on the workers’ behalf.

Universal Security, which has a contract with the city for airport work, also has been criticized. But Wednesday, Scrub and Prospect were the main targets for allegations of wage theft at an SEIU news conference.

Some refugees from Myanmar, also known as Burma, told me they do not receive all or part of their work breaks. Overtime isn’t paid in full, some said. Other workers allege that the companies demand they start shifts early but don’t pay workers for the time.

Fifteen to 20 minutes of unpaid work each day hits hard at home, a worker, Julio Godoy said. “That would help pay our bills,” he added.

A Scrub telephone receptionist said the company had no comment on the allegations. It doesn’t have a clean record. In 2009 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for failing to hire African-Americans. It paid a fine and entered into a consent decree.

Prospect office manager Renata Cetera read a statement, saying the company has no knowledge of the allegations, but if it becomes aware of them, it will investigate and cooperate. That doesn’t make sense. The allegations have been out there for months; the company has to be aware.

Company leaders also must know many of these workers live in poverty. SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff points out that when workers can’t make ends meet, they are forced to turn to public assistance.

“They treat people like garbage,” Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) said by phone of the companies.

Pawar said he regrets supporting the city’s contracted work at O’Hare. “I made a mistake. We should have been looking out for these workers.”

It’s not too late for the mayor to lobby for workers. Pressure the airlines, which don’t hesitate to nickel and dime passengers.

Allowing minimum-wage workers to be pinched is an unconscionable low.


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