QUEENS, NEW YORK-DECEMBER 9, 2018: Interior of the new terminal at LaGuardia Airport. The airport is undergoing a multi-billion dollar investment. (Shutterstock)
By Amir Khafagy, Documented NY
Last Thursday, nearly 100 airport workers gathered outside the historic Marina Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport to demand better working conditions from their employer Swissport USA and for Congress to pass the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act. The bill seeks to create a national standard that will ensure airport service workers earn living wages and benefits like paid time off and healthcare.
Immigrant workers employed by Swissport USA, a Swiss-owned international aviation services contractor that handles hospital, cleaning, and cargo handling services, say that the company is routinely stealing their wages, cutting their hours, and failing to provide them with sick days or paid time off.
“We don’t get enough paid time off,” said Omar Rodriguez, a Dominican ramp agent and cabin cleaner employed by Swissport. “We’re supposed to get a week of paid sick days. But we’re so short-staffed they make it almost impossible.”
Thursday’s action, which was organized in anticipation of the upcoming holiday travel season, was part of a larger national protest coordinated by 32BJ SEIU that saw labor actions in 15 major cities to call attention to the plight of Swissport workers. The company has dozens of employees in New York and 45,000 worldwide. In addition to the rally in New York, Swissport employees in Chicago, Boston, and Newark staged a one-day strike.
At LaGuardia, a large crowd of workers told Documented they are rallying because of the poor and unsafe work conditions they face on regular bases. They are also protesting their low wages, with most of the workers only making $19 an hour and lack benefits like health insurance. This in turn has fueled labor shortages. With fewer employees, workers say Swissport is forcing them to take on a greater workload and placing them in more dangerous work situations.
“You know how much the bags weigh here bro? I lift 99 pounds by myself,” said baggage handler Jennifer Zambrano.
Swissport did not respond to Documented’s request for comment.
Dave Budra, a Guyanese Swissport worker said on top of his regular duties as a baggage handler, which requires him to load luggage on and off the planes, now because of staffing shortages he is now expected to clean the inside of the cabin as well. Budra as well as several of his co-workers told Documented that workers are pressured to come into work sick or are denied paid sick days to fill staffing shortages.
“It’s back-to-back flights,” said Budra. “I came to work one day with my lunch and I had to take it back home with me. I had no chance to eat it.”
No matter how hard they work, workers say they are routinely denied breaks. When it rains, Budra is forced to work through it without any relief. “You have to work with wet shoes, and wet clothes, for eight hours. Two days ago I was wet head to toe.”
Between 2017 and 2019 Swissport accumulated over $6,000 in Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations for unsafe work conditions. In 2018, a baggage handler in Florida died of an apparent heart attack while on the job. The company was issued an OSHA violation in 2019 because a worker was struck by a baggage tractor, pinning her legs between it and a baggage cart. She sustained serious injuries.
This is not the first time workers at Swissport have fought back against management. Workers around the world have been waving red flags regarding how the company treats them. This past April, Swissport mechanics in Detroit went on strike for a better contract. Australian Swissport Baggage handlers nearly went on strike in September over grueling shifts. In 2017, at Toronto’s Pearson airport, Swissport workers walked off the job over a dispute involving pay and benefit cuts. In 2013, workers at London’s Stansted Airport also went on strike over a similar dispute.
Back in Queens, Omar Rodriquez said the conditions at Swissport have caused such a high employee turnover rate is also contributing to the poor conditions. Several workers say that most new employees don’t stay more than a few weeks before quitting.
“We get blamed for delays, but we’re only given a few minutes to clean and don’t have enough people to do the work,” said Rodriquez. “No one wants to stay because the pay and benefits are not enough for what we do.
During a speech at LaGuardia on Thursday, State Senator John Liu called out Swissport for its mistreatment of its employees who were essential workers during the height of the pandemic.
“Swissport is a company, an employer and we need them to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s not respecting workers as the assets, as the human capital that they truly are? This has to change.”