It is, in many ways, easiest to chart Anthony Sanders’ job in the things it does not offer.
There are no paid sick days, no vacation days. There is no break room, just the airport’s food court, where sometimes he will spend his 30-minute lunch break catching his breath. He earns $10 an hour. Plus tips.
But Sanders, 46, loves his job. He has been working at Tampa International Airport for almost four years as a baggage handler and wheelchair attendant. The thing Sanders loves most about his job — working closely with people from around the world — became the most hazardous when the coronavirus clobbered society in spring 2020.
The Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, introduced in Congress last week, is supported by a slate of unions who say it would help recognize the essential role airport workers play in keeping Americans moving and alleviate labor shortages and fast turnover rates plaguing the industry.
It requires airports, airport vendors and airline contractors to pay their service workers at least $15 an hour with benefits, in order to access the billions of dollars the federal government provides to airports each year.
“This is a common-sense proposal,” Sen. Ed Markey, R-Mass., said at the bill’s launch in Washington. The office of Sen. Rick Scott did not say whether he will be supporting the legislation; Sen. Marco Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In Tampa, the pandemic brought drastic passenger drop-offs and nearly $1 billion in construction delays. Thousands of workers nationwide like Sanders were laid off, with no severance pay and little explanation about when they could return. At the time, his hourly rate was $5.50, according to Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, the chapter that represents 175,000 service workers around the country, including 3,000 airport workers in Florida. He jumped at the chance to return to work two months later, and saw his salary increase due to demand brought on by staffing shortages, but no passengers equals no tips.
Bills kept coming and soon he was deciding between food, rent and car payments.
Tampa’s airport, which consistently ranks high in national customer satisfaction surveys, has recovered faster than most. It now flies to more destinations now than before the pandemic and officials decided to move forward with the new terminal.
But as passengers return to the sky in record numbers, workers like Sanders feel overlooked and underpaid.
“We have a nightmare scenario at our airports, with record cancellations and delays, and the airlines are blaming a worker shortage,” said Helene O’Brien, Florida director for Local 32BJ. “Well, here’s an idea. Make these jobs more attractive so people want to work at the airport.”
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Jobs that used to be directly provided by airlines or airports are now often outsourced to contractors, leading to lower-paid jobs for a large segment of the airports’ labor force, disproportionately immigrants and people of color, according to union leaders.
The Service Employees International Union does not represent employees who work for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which operates Tampa International Airport. But the union does represent employees, like Sanders, who work for tenants that do business at the airport, like cleaners or concessionaries. Airport spokesperson Veronica Cintron said they are monitoring the legislation closely.
Sanders said he has gone to work sick because the alternative is missing pay. His employer, Prospect Airport Services, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“I just keep working,” he said. “I can’t miss out on an opportunity to make tips.”
But this spring a blood clot in his leg sent him to hospital for two weeks. He is continuing to recover at home, unable to walk because of the pain. He’s been out of work for a month. He is behind on rent and unsure when he’ll be back to the terminals.
Family members are helping out when they can. One co-worker delivered groceries and set up a fund for others to donate to his medical costs. A neighbor gave Sanders his walker.
Sanders has health insurance through his job. But many airport workers opt out because it is so pricey, union leaders say. Instead they go without, or if they are of age, like wheelchair attendant Frank Bohan, they have Medicare.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Bohan said in between shifts on Thursday. Sometimes, he’ll let colleagues take his passengers to their plane if he knows they need the tips more.
One recent evening, Bohan, 65, thumbed through the day’s tips. Twenty-five dollars. Not great, he thought.
“You take the good with the bad,” he said.
And with that he headed home, ready to return the next day.