Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to Restore Good Jobs at American Airports

The outsourcing of airport jobs that once sustained middle-class careers has left many airport workers in jobs characterized by insecurity and low wages, according to a new UC Berkeley Labor Center study released today. According to the study, this trend poses problems for workers, the communities surrounding airports and the flying public.

Today’s report, “Course Correction,” comes as voters in SeaTac, Wash., a city adjacent to the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, consider a local ordinance that would set a $15- an-hour minimum wage for many airport and airport-related workers, and do so just as the holiday season and air travel begin to pick up. Agencies also are considering similar measures at other airports.

According to the report, airport and airport-related workers saw real hourly wages fall by an average of 15 percent from 2002 to 2012. The report also notes that, while the total number of workers in air transport-related industries has declined since 2001, the share of outsourced workers grew from 19 percent to 26 percent by 2011.

The report authors – Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education; Labor Center research data analyst Miranda Dietz; and Peter V. Hall, associate professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver – say airport workers’ declining pay and job insecurity impact not just their health and economic welfare, but also airport efficiency, safety and security.

With some airport workers hired by contractors to perform duties for as many as three different airlines over the course of a day, the researchers believe the mechanisms and lines of accountability for fixing glitches can be problematic. Inadequately trained and less experienced workers may be less familiar with safety hazards and procedures. In addition, subcontractors and their employees are less likely to identify and report hazards to authorities or the public.

This report comes on the heels of recent headline-generating news from the campus’s Labor Center about the reliance by many fast-food workers on government assistance. The latest study found that wage growth for airport operations workers not only fell below the average across all industries, but it even dipped below the low-paying food service and retail industries.

The Labor Center researchers report that many of the outsourced airport workers turn to public assistance to make ends meet, noting that airports are publicly owned –- by cities, counties or separate public port or airport authorities They trace the downward shift in wages for baggage handlers, skycaps, wheelchair/personal assistants, ticket and gate agents, plane fuelers, mechanics and others to airline industry deregulation in the late 1970s. 

Among key findings of “Course Correction”:

  • Even as the total number of workers in air transport-related industries has declined since 2001, the share of workers outsourced grew from 19 percent to 26 percent by 2011.
  • Baggage porters saw outsourcing more than triple in the last decade, while average hourly real wages declined by 45 percent, sliding from over $19 an hour to $10.60 in 2012 dollars.
  • Among airport cleaning and baggage workers, both direct and outsourced, 37 percent live in or near the poverty level.
  • Almost 80 percent of airport cleaning and baggage workers live in families with children or a spouse, some 70 percent are over the age of 30, half have high school diplomas or the equivalent, and another 32 percent have a year or more of college.
  • The volume of passengers assisted by airline workers has grown steadily, with the number of passengers boarded per air transport worker reaching 1,180 in 2011. 

According to the authors, airports can take steps to address these wage declines. They cite the adoption of higher  living wage and standards at airports in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis and Hartford, Conn., as proven examples of how to improve the lot of airport workers as well as of airport operations.

Following implementation of higher wage standards at San Francisco International Airport  in 2000, employee turnover fell sharply while employers reported improvements in employee performance and customer service. Neither employment nor passenger volumes showed declines as a result of the policy.

This article originally appeared in the UC Berkeley News Center.