Portland airport commission approves minimum labor standards

Workers at Portland International Airport (PDX) recently made progress in their campaign to improve their working conditions when the commission that overseas operations at the airport agreed to a framework for addressing the workers’ grievances.

The workers, who work for different contractors, provide essential support services at the airport including loading and unloading baggage, cleaning airplane cabins, fueling airplanes, working in the airport’s restaurants and shops, and doing other work that keeps the airport operating smoothly.

The Port of Portland Board of Commissioners, who oversee operations at PDX, on April 8 voted 7-1 to adopt the PDX Workplace Initiative that outlines minimum labor standards for work at the airport.

Details about how to achieve the minimum labor standards will be worked out over the course of the next six months by the PDX Worker Benefit Group.

“I’m just so happy at last something changed. We are all just so happy and thankful something is happening for people working at the airport,” said Kasil Kapriel, a customer service representative to GoLocal PDX News.

Kapriel has been active in Our Airport, a group of PDX workers formed to improve working conditions at PDX. She recently testified before a state legislative committee in Salem, Oregon about the need to raise the minimum wage.

Meg Niemi, president of SEIU Local 49, which has been supporting the airport workers, called the minimum labor standards a good first step but said that more needs to be done.

“We hope the Port will continue to listen to workers on the ground and hold airlines . . . accountable for making sure that jobs at the airport are good jobs.”

In the past, airport jobs were good jobs, but since the airline business was deregulated, airlines have been outsourcing good-pay jobs to contractors that pay low wages, don’t provide good benefits, and often treat their employees as if they were a disposable commodity.

In February, reports Bloomberg, United announced that it will be outsourcing 1,100 ramp agent and customer representative jobs at 12 airports. In November, the company outsourced 600 similar jobs.

Frontier in January announced that it will outsource 1,160 ramp, baggage, customer service, and call center reservation jobs at Denver International Airport .

United has already contracted with Simplicity Ground Services to take over the work of some of United’s former employees.

Simplicity is owned by Menzies Aviation, which describes Simplicity as “our new ‘low cost’ brand.”

Simplicity operates at a number of airports in the US. Starting pay for Simplicity ramp agents ranges from $9 to $12 an hour depending on the airport.

Local 49 recently conducted a survey of contractor employees at PDX to determine what their working conditions are like.

Of those responding to the survey, 37 percent said that they were making the state’s minimum wage of $9.50 an hour, 67 percent said that their employer doesn’t offer benefits, 41 percent said that they were exposed to dangerous chemicals on the job, and half said that didn’t have the equipment or supplies they needed to do their work.

The report on the results of the survey also said that airport workers fear retaliation if they try to improve their working conditions or talk to other workers about joining a union. They also are concerned about under staffing and high employee turnover rates, both of which lead to customer service lapses.

The minimum labor standards initiative adopted by the commission seeks to address some of the poor conditions identified in Local 49’s survey.

PDX’s new minimum labor standards seek to ensure that all airport employees work in safe and healthy environment, have access to benefits including health care insurance, receive adequate training, and have some job security.

The new labor standards include measures aimed at reducing the high turnover rate, whose average among contractors at PDX has been 60 percent for the last three years.

The commissioners also said that they would remain neutral in any union organizing drive among airport workers and urged contractors to do the same.

The commissioners, however, remained silent on the need to raise wages of airport workers.

Despite this particular shortcoming, workers involved in the campaign to improve working conditions at PDX called the PDX Workplace Initiative’s new minimum labor standards a victory.

“This is the beginning of changes for the workers,” said Gladys Hernandez, a customer service representative who is still paid the minimum wage after seven years on the job, to The Oregonian.