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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

Florida airline workers demand living wages and benefits

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Alexi Cardona
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32BJ SEIU
Nearly 40 airline service workers and union members gathered outside of the Orlando International Airport on Aug. 3. In the front row, Anthony Sanders sports a 49ers hat next to a poster that reads "Poverty Wages Don't Fly!"

Around 90% of airport-contracted employees report having zero days of paid sick leave, according to a union survey.

Anthony Sanders has worked for four years as a subcontractor at Tampa International Airport loading baggage and escorting passengers in wheelchairs.

"I love helping people," he said. "The passengers tell me, you know, I couldn't do this without you."

In May, Sanders suffered a blood clot in his leg that bound him to a wheelchair of his own.

But as an airline-contracted employee, every day he's not working is a day without pay.

Around 90% of airline-contracted workers at Florida's largest airports report having zero paid sick days, according to a survey conducted by an international service workers union.

Between April and July, the union surveyed 639 airport workers contracted by Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport, and Tampa International Airport.

The union, SEIU 32BJ, represents over 18,000 workers of major airports along the East Coast, according to the report.

Contracted or subcontracted employees — like baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants — service the airlines, but don't share the same labor protections as airport employees directly hired by aviation authorities.

For instance, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority oversees four airports and approximately 650 airport employees in departments like finance and maintenance. The lowest paid worker makes $18 an hour with benefits, according to a spokesperson.

In contrast, the wages and benefits for contracted and subcontracted employees are decided by airlines. These jobs constitute the majority of employees passengers might encounter at the airport, between check-in and takeoff: wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, ramp workers, airplane cabin cleaners and security officers.

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SEIU 32BJ
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Screenshot from report by SEIU 32BJ
The average hourly wage for airline-contracted workers at Florida airports. Of those surveyed, 85 percent of airline workers said they had trouble paying their bills.

When he was working on an airline salary, Sanders said he was living paycheck to paycheck. On average, airline employees at Tampa International Airport employees make the lowest hourly wage compared to the state's four largest airports.

Without paid sick leave, Sanders hasn't earned a full paycheck since May. Since then, he couldn't make rent and lost his apartment. To make ends meet, he moved in with a coworker and qualified for food stamps.

Last month, he even tried returning to work without being fully recovered.

On Wednesday, Sanders joined around 40 airline workers and union members outside Orlando International Airport to demand living wages and improved benefits — a sea of purple T-shirts behind a podium that read "Poverty Wages Don't Fly!"

Helene O'Brien is the statewide coordinator the service workers union. She welcomes the crowd over the sound of airplanes landing and taking off.

"These airline-contracted workers provide essential services to the flying public," O'Brien said. "And without them, passengers cannot board a plane, and the planes don't fly."

Among the union-backed recommendations to provide livable wages and improved benefits to airline workers, O'Brien urged Florida's congressional leaders to pass the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act.

The federal bill, proposed in June, would require airports that receive federal funds to set a minimum wage and benefits standard for contracted airport employees.

If enacted, the measure would expand the definition of “covered service worker” under Title 42, or the U.S. Transportation code, to include airport workers who are employed through contractors or subcontractors.

This comes after millions of federal dollars in pandemic relief and infrastructure funding has been allocated to airports. Those in support argue the new requirements would ensure that airline employees are being invested in, too.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

Corrected: August 5, 2022 at 11:19 AM EDT
This story has been updated to include a correction on airport wages at Tampa International Airport and offer clarification between airport-hired employees and service workers contracted by airlines and other airport vendors.
I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.