Shareeka Elliott arrives to work in the dark and returns home in the dark. At 6 am, when she finishes her eight-hour shift as a cleaner at John F. Kennedy International Airport, she takes two buses, the B15 and B83, for an hour-and-a-half commute to the house in East New York that she shares with seven family members. The commute is grueling; the work, more so. Her hourly wage of $7.90 provides barely enough to cover basic living expenses for her and her two young daughters, and she receives no healthcare or benefits. If she misses a day, she is expected to provide documentation of her whereabouts. At 26 years old, she is locked into a job that offers no prospect of its becoming a career.
On a blustery November morning, as the sky over JFK began to lighten, Elliott waited for the B15. With her were Diana Smith and Omar Dunkley, her colleagues at Airway LLC, one of the many contractors hired to provide “passenger service” positions at the airport. They were commiserating over the imposition of a new rule: the elimination of the fifteen-minute grace period at the start of a shift that allowed workers some flexibility in their travel time. Now, an arrival of five minutes past the hour results in a written reprimand.
According to Smith, an engaging middle-aged woman in a fuchsia winter coat, this type of arbitrary procedural change is common: “They make up their own rules. We don’t even have an employee handbook. I know in the real world, every company has a grace period—even McDonald’s.”
Dunkley, a young father with a class clown’s demeanor, agreed, citing the various ways their employer managed to cut costs: reducing shift breaks from two fifteen-minute blocks to one; subtracting lunch hours from regular pay rather than overtime to avoid compensating for time-and-a-half; chronically culling the staff, leaving fewer employees to complete the same tasks. He showed off a copy of his most recent check. Before taxes, Dunkley takes home $316 for a week of full-time work.
Elliott, who is thoughtful and soft-spoken, with wavy black hair that frames a serious face, maintained that the dismissive treatment of worker’s needs was the worst insult. “The hardest pill to swallow is really how people talk to you. You’re asking too much of me for the little amount I take home each week.”
For many workers at the three airports serving the New York metropolitan region—JFK, LaGuardia and Newark—these stories are all too familiar. Airway LLC is one of dozens of vendors contracted by major airlines to provide passenger service positions: security screeners, baggage handlers, ticket checkers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, ground transportation dispatchers. These subcontracted workers (there are over 14,000 at the three New York–New Jersey airports) have no benefits or employer-provided healthcare and earn significantly lower wages than the largely unionized airline employees alongside whom they work.
A recent report on contracted passenger service workers at these three airports, published by the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University, found that they “are overwhelmingly people of color living in low-income neighborhoods surrounding the airports.” Concentrated in areas like Mott Haven, East New York, Canarsie and Jamaica—neighborhoods with some of the highest unemployment rates in the city—the 300 workers surveyed for the study make, on average, $8 per hour. More than ten percent hold a second job, and many rely on government assistance to make ends meet. A small number are homeless. Nationally, 37 percent of the families of airport cleaning and baggage workers receive some form of federal assistance, including SNAP benefits and Medicaid.