PDX Workers: Don’t Delay Liftoff of Higher Wages, More Sick Days

Eric Tegethoff
Oregon News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Port of Portland has outlined pay raises for airport workers including baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants and airplane cleaners.

But workers said the raises need to come sooner.

Service Employees International Union Local 49 members are also asking for more paid sick days beyond the five mandated by Oregon.

Maggie Long, executive director of Local 49, said the lack of sick days is especially dangerous as COVID-19 cases surge and that pay increases can’t wait while the pandemic places more financial stress on workers.

“I think it falls far short of what this moment calls for,” Long contended. “And so while we’re excited to see a step forward here, we are demanding that the port do more in this moment.”

Port of Portland commissioners will require contractors, which employ about 900 airport workers, to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by July 2021, and $16.55 cents by 2022.

At a Port Commission meeting on Wednesday, some commissioners expressed concern airlines are not in a financial position to increase wages sooner or add more paid sick days.

At the commission meeting, SEIU Local 49 member Donald Martin gave testimony on the dire financial situations facing many of his co-workers.

Martin, a passenger service agent for Huntleigh USA, which assists people in wheelchairs, said many workers come to work sick because they can’t afford to miss getting paid.

“You don’t get paid if you don’t work, and that’s not an option,” Martin asserted. “That means eviction and sleeping on the street. Already, I’ve known many airport workers who have slept in their car or crashed on someone’s couch because they can’t afford rent, even working full time.”

Long noted airlines received a bailout from Congress in the CARES Act this year, while workers faced furloughs and reduced hours.

She stressed the lack of greater support for airport workers ultimately is a racial justice issue.

“It is Black, Brown workers in high-exposure jobs who are feeling the brunt of this pandemic,” Long remarked.

During Wednesday’s commission meeting, SEIU Local 49 workers held a car caravan at the airport and called on commissioners to pass an airport workers’ “Bill of Rights” for higher wages, more paid sick days and access to affordable health care.