Airport contract workers to get raise — and then another next year

Roughly 6,500 employees serving as everything from caterers, de-icers, and baggage handlers to wheelchair attendants, airfield and cargo workers stand to benefit.

SHARE Airport contract workers to get raise — and then another next year
A passenger jet takes off from O’Hare International Airport earlier this month.

A passenger jet takes off from O’Hare International Airport earlier this month.

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Thousands of contract employees at O’Hare and Midway Airports will see their hourly wages rise to $17 on July 1 — that’s $2 higher than Chicago’s $15 minimum wage. And it will go up to $18 a year later, and increase by the consumer price index every year after that.

The City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development made it happen Monday, approving an ordinance that dramatically strengthens “service provider license agreements” approved by the City Council in 2017.

Roughly 6,500 employees — everything from caterers, de-icers, and baggage handlers to wheelchair attendants, airfield and cargo workers — stand to benefit from the ordinance championed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and SEIU Local 1.

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The 70 airport service providers licensed by the city — 56 at O’Hare, 14 at Midway — would be further required to submit a memorandum to the Department of Aviation within 60 days of renewing their licenses, outlining what their companies are doing to recruit employees from impoverished Chicagoneighborhoods.

“This will ensure that these good, living-wage airport careers are going to city residents and, especially, to residents of our socio-economically disadvantaged areas,” said Amber Ritter, chief commercial officers for the Department of Aviation.

Genie Kastrup, executive vice-president for SEIU Local 1, said it’s high time that “some of the billions” of federal and city dollars lavished on the airline industry during the pandemic “make its way into the pockets of workers, as it was intended.”

Michael Ortiz, an 18-year veteran passenger service assistant at Midway, would be one of those beneficiaries.

Many of his co-workers were laid off during the pandemic. Those fortunate enough to survive were forced to work longer hours for the same pay, doing jobs far beyond their original responsibilities.

“By increasing the minimum wage scale for all airport workers, we will be able to put food on the table for our families, pay rent and attract new workers to help fix the worker shortage we’re seeing at the airport. This will benefit us all,” Ortiz said.

Brian Grove, another airport contract employee, was forced to choose between his family’s health and a paycheck that put food on their table.

“We had to survive. So I showed up at the airport every day, worked longer hours than usual fearing that I would get COVID-19 and bring it back home to my children, including my newborn child,” Grove said.

“The new wage scale will help my family and many others tremendously. I’d be able to pay rent, bills and start a savings for my four daughters’ future. ... This could change our lives.”

Sean Williams, vice president of state and local government affairs for Airlines for America, urged alderpersons not to pile additional costs onto an airline industry “still struggling to recover” from a pandemic that brought business and overseas travel to a virtual halt.

Williams noted Chicago is already “one of the most expensive hub airports in the country,” with a cost-per-boarding-passenger that’s higher than every other major U.S. city except New York.

“It matters to us because big hubs are seeing a return of traffic at a faster rate than they are at O’Hare and Midway. And this will continue to put O’Hare and Midway at a severe disadvantage from a cost perspective as we struggle to recover from this pandemic,” Williams said, denouncing the ordinance as “wage discrimination.”

In 2017, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel averted a Council showdown on a long-stalled airport living wage ordinance by embracing a plan to tie licenses for contractors at O’Hare and Midway Airports to a “labor peace agreement” that allowed thousands of workers to join unions.

Baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, aircraft maintenance workers and security guards were free to organize without interference. Contractors were prohibited from preventing those workers from “engaging in strikes, picketing, work stoppages, boycotts or other economic interference.”

The ordinance further mandated that those airline contractors and sub-contractors pay employees at least $13.45-an-hour as of July 1, 2018. Annual increases after that were tied to the cost-of-living. Employees whose wages include gratuities were to be paid $1-an-hour more than the minimumwage that applies to tipped employees.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) called the wage hikes approved Monday a natural outgrowth of that groundbreaking ordinance.

“When we, as a City Council, implemented the O’Hare living wage ordinance back in 2017 after many years of SEIU Local 1 and airport workers fighting together to win that ordinance, our intent was always to ensure that the O’Hare minimum wage was a living wage that was higher than the living wage set for Chicago,” he said.


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