I travel to Washington at the beginning of every week Congress is in session. When the week is over, I come home to Florida. As your representative in Congress, I have grown accustomed to frequent air travel, and have spent a lot of time in airports in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Washington, D.C.
In the weeks approaching Labor Day – the one day a year dedicated to honoring the contributions of the hardworking men and women who make our country great – I found myself reflecting on the airport workers in South Florida. Like many American workers, they never get the full recognition they deserve. Many of them make low wages, yet they help keep passengers safe as they travel each and every day, regardless of the circumstances. Nowhere was this clearer than at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, when last January, airport workers took it upon themselves to help passengers during the horrific shooting attack.
One of these workers is Rashad Grant, a wheelchair attendant. When rumors of a second shooter spread throughout the terminals and panicked passengers began running out onto the runway, Rashad calmly stayed behind to care for two disabled passengers and a woman who had been injured.
Jean David is also a wheelchair attendant. When the shooting began, he helped evacuate elderly travelers and held their hands to help them remain calm. Sharon Pringle, a customer service agent, handed out water and cookies to seniors and panicked children caught in the airport lockdown.
Last month, I heard from Rashad, Jean, and Sharon at a roundtable discussion with Fort Lauderdale airport workers and the union that represents many of them, 32BJ SEIU, on how to increase security at the airport.
According to a report by the union, only 33 percent of passenger service workers said they had been trained by their employer about what to do in an emergency. Only 27 percent said they felt prepared to protect themselves during an emergency or reported having participated in an emergency drill in the past two years. But even though airport employees like Rashad and his colleagues weren’t sure what to do, they knew they had a responsibility to their passengers. They knew that in that horrifying moment, they were there to help. These wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, ramp workers, baggage handlers, and many others are the everyday heroes that make the airlines run. They are an integral part of the operations at our airports, especially during an emergency.
The airline industry earned over $30 billion in profits last year alone. Because of a low-road contracting system, most airline passenger service jobs are outsourced to subcontractors that often skimp on training, wages and benefits. As a result, too many employees work only part-time hours, don’t get paid sick leave, and have few benefits. Many are working two to three jobs just to survive, exacerbating turnover and having a detrimental effect on service and security.
That’s why I’m standing with Fort Lauderdale airport workers in calling for mandatory paid training and a higher living wage. Both are necessary so that airport workers can keep themselves and their passengers safe. More importantly, we need airlines and their subcontractors to take an active role in preparing for and managing emergencies.
There is a lot of attention being paid to what airport authorities and local safety agencies are doing, and rightfully so. However, it is the airlines and their subcontractors that employ most of the workers who come in direct contact with travelers. As the airlines make record profits, they need to renew the investments in their workforce.
While enjoying Labor Day this year, let us also show appreciation for our airport workers and get serious about safety at our airports. Putting in place policies that encourage a stable, well-paid, well-trained workforce is a win-win for passengers and workers. And that is something we can all celebrate.