For 25,000 New York airport cleaners, baggage handlers, security officers, wheelchair aides, and contract workers, 2021 ushered in the chance to receive affordable quality health insurance, thanks to legislation signed into law Dec. 31 by Gov. Cuomo.
The Healthy Terminals Act, which covers all workers regardless of their union affiliation, had been a top legislative priority of Building Service Workers Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. It will be phased in this year.
Union President Kyle Bragg said in a statement. "Adding a health-care benefit supplement to airport jobs creates thousands of good, sustainable jobs that uplift everyone. Airport workers have risked their lives for the public during this unstoppable pandemic, and nothing is more important than protecting them."
Under the legislation, employers will be required to pay an additional $4.54 benefit supplement in workers' checks that they can apply to purchasing health coverage.
The bill took on a new sense of urgency amidst the pandemic, which has disproportionately hit people of color who also make up much of the essential workforce in the transportation sector.
Weeks before COVID-19 got traction in states like New York and the nation's congregate-care facilities, it showed up in the air-transportation sector. Last March 10, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration tweeted that "three Transportation Security Officers who work at Mineta San Jose International Airport have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus."
Four days earlier, officials confirmed that two British Airways baggage-handlers at London's Heathrow Airport had tested positive for coronavirus, requiring the testing of their co-workers. And on April 2, Frank Boccabella, 39, an Explosive Detection Canine Handler based at Newark Liberty International Airport, died from the virus.
Tribute to Baggage-Handler
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx), the bill's sponsor, told the Daily News she dedicated the legislation to the memory of Leland Jordan, a baggage handler at JFK Airport who was an early victim.
"This is a victory for all New Yorkers as we take an integral step to protect some of our most vulnerable workers in the wake of the global pandemic," Ms. Biaggi told the newspaper. "With the signing of [the bill], these essential workers will finally have access to affordable health-care coverage."
Similar legislation that would cover workers in New Jersey's airports is pending in Trenton.
"We look forward to New Jersey following the lead of Governor Cuomo in New York and passing this important bill into law," said New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.
"I am optimistic that the New Jersey legislature and governor will follow New York's lead and make the Healthy Terminals Act a law very soon," Local 32BJ Vice President Kevin Brown said in a statement. "New Jersey's airport workers need this bill urgently."
Cites Death-Rate Disparity
In an op-ed in the Star-Ledger, Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer urged Trenton to act quickly, noting that the death rate for black New Jersey residents had spiked by 68 percent in the first several months of 2020 "compared to a normal year, versus a 28% increase among whites."
"The difference stems from a lack of access to preventative care, the effects of toxic stress from enduring racism, and the fact that Black Americans are more likely to suffer from pre-existing conditions that make us vulnerable if we get the virus," he wrote.
The latest win for the region's airline industry workforce builds on a strategy pioneered by Hector Figueroa, the Local 32BJ president who died in 2018, the year the union got the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to commit to substantial raises for airport workers culminating in a $19-an-hour wage by 2023.
Joshua Freeman, a labor historian and Professor at both the City University of New York Graduate Center and Queens College, called the pandemic a unique opportunity for unions like 32BJ to make inroads with essential workers who were not yet organized.
Bread on the Waters
"Through much of its history, the organized labor movement considered itself the advocate and spokesperson for all working people, not just union members," he wrote in an email. "To some extent that has continued through today, for example in union support for a higher minimum wage. Most union members do not directly benefit because their wages already exceed the proposed minimum."
He continued, "Similarly, in pushing for the original federal OSHA bill, unions were seeking to protect all workers, not just their own members. The tremendous challenges essential workers have faced during the pandemic and the sacrifices they have made have given them greater moral standing and popular support than in the recent past. Also, because they are essential, they have the potential to greatly disrupt everyday life if they decide to protest or strike."
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