By COLIN STAUB
More than 1,000 service workers at Portland International Airport will get a bump in their paid time off (PTO) accrual this summer, thanks to advocacy by workers and SEIU Local 49.
Portland International Airport (PDX) is staffed by workers employed directly by the Port of Portland (which manages the airport) and also by workers employed by subcontractors, known as “airline service providers.” Airport subcontracting has been a trend nationwide, with once in-house services like baggage handling, ramp fueling and wheelchair assistance going to outside contractors. According to SEIU Local 49, which represents about 600 workers at PDX, contracting out has driven down airport workplace standards across the country.
“What were at one time really decent jobs, with good benefits, family sustaining wages, have now become jobs that generally provide the absolute minimum,” said Scott Cheesewright, assistant organizing director at SEIU Local 49, in recent testimony before the Port commission.
At PDX, one major disparity in subcontracted job conditions is in PTO accrual. While directly employed Port workers accrue at least 80 hours (two weeks) of PTO per year, most workers employed by airline subcontractors get the legal minimum: 40 hours per year, to be used for either sick or vacation time.
That forces workers to make hard choices, and it drives turnover at the airport.
“I’ve watched my coworkers walk out the door because despite working for months and years, taking a few days off can mean risking our livelihoods,” said Kenneth Jones, a passenger service assistant with airport contractor Huntleigh USA, in testimony before the Port commission. Jones, a Local 49 member, has worked in numerous jobs at PDX since 1992.
Depora Walter, a cabin cleaner with Prospect Airport Services, told the commission the lack of PTO makes it hard to spend time with family without risking financial stability. A policy covering all airline subcontractors is needed, she said, because if individual vendors make improvements, airlines can simply drop them for a cheaper vendor that provides fewer benefits.
On Dec. 14, the Port announced it would enact such a policy. Curtis Robinhold, the Port’s executive director, said the airport would require subcontractors to provide at least 80 hours per year of PTO for their workers. One goal, he said, is to encourage and allow for workers to stay home when they’re sick. Robinhold said the policy will be implemented in July 2023.
The job improvement comes as airport workers nationwide are pushing for better working conditions. One vehicle for those job improvements is the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, federal legislation cosponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The bill would set a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour for airport service employees, and set minimum benefits airports must provide to workers. It was introduced into Congress in June 2022 but hasn’t moved forward.