Arlington resident Larry Allen is tired of being paid low wages. He’s worked at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport as an airline contractor since the 1980s. When he worked as a curbside porter, he said his hourly wage was $2 an hour plus tips.
“Why would you pay a grown man $2 an hour, even though you were making tips?” Allen said.
After the pandemic, Allen, 69, an Arlington resident, started working as a wheelchair attendant and makes slightly above the Texas minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. He makes $8 an hour.
Allen and other wheelchair attendants, airline cabin cleaners and baggage handlers across the country and at DFW Airport are saying the low wages aren’t enough and want American Airlines and others to force their contractors to raise wages for workers.
American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, employs contractors to do work like cleaning plane cabins. Members of the Service Employees International Union and Airport Workers United want major airlines to force higher wages and benefits for subcontracted employees.
Allen works for ABM Aviation, a major airline contractor.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like my job,” Allen said. “I get to talk to people all over the country. But $8 is just not enough.”
Allen and about 50 other workers stood at the steps of the American Airlines headquarters demanding action from new CEO Robert Isom, who started his job on March 30. Protesters chanted “bring him down” to sign a petition for fair wages. Service Employees International Union and Airport Workers United organized the rally.
The unions organized other protests that occurred across the country at Delta Airlines in Atlanta and United Airlines in Chicago.
ABM Aviation did not respond to the Fort Worth Report for a statement.
A spokesman for Service Employees International Union said they have not heard anything from any major airlines, including American Airlines.
American Airlines did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from the Fort Worth Report about the union’s petition or rally in front of its headquarters.
Jeff Benvegnu, an aviation industry consultant who previously worked for American Airlines and DFW for years, said major airlines use contractors because it’s cheaper.
Airlines bid with contractors for jobs like airplane cleaners and wheelchair attendants and typically go for the bid with the lowest cost, which is cheaper than the airline hiring directly, he said. Another reason is flexibility.
“From an airline perspective, they can go to this outsourced firm and say … I’m giving you notice that I need you to either ramp up or ramp down your operation,” Benvegnu said. “Or if that company is not performing to the airline’s specifications, they can give them an early out notice and cancel the whole thing and go hire somebody else.”
Benvegnu thinks it’s unlikely that airlines will sign a petition committing to higher wages. The aviation industry is highly unionized, and airlines don’t want to start a standard of committing to demands of protesters.
“From my perspective, that’s always kind of the driving impetus for them is – I don’t want to do anything that’s going to set a precedent that’s going to cost me a lot of money throughout my system,” Benvegnu said. “So, unfortunately, that’s kind of the way it is.”
Airlines used to pay more for these jobs. In 2002, 41% of passenger attendants, like wheelchair rollers, were hired directly by airlines and earned $15.52 an hour, adjusted for inflation, according to analysis in a report by Service Employees International Union.
In 2019, 98% of passenger attendants were contracted and earned an average of $12.44 an hour, according to the report.
The union says people of color make up 64% of the contracted airport worker industry.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines raised wages for directly employed workers to $15 an hour in 2021, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Angi DeFilippo, the political director for the Tarrant County Labor Council, said companies contracting out is a common practice, and while workers aren’t employed directly through the airlines, she said, the companies have influence in raising wages.
“At the end of the day, they do have a say because they’re the one contracting,” DeFilippo said. “They can put any stipulations on a company that they contract work out to, including living wages and health benefits.”
Wages for contracted airline workers depends on the contractor and whether it’s unionized.
Joseph Lammons shampoos the insides of planes as a contractor for American Airlines in the Philadelphia airport. Lammons attended the rally. He likes his job and often fantasizes about where the travelers are going when he’s inside the plane. But the working conditions are rough — he said he often gets no breaks and has to do a lot of work in little time.
He said they are in negotiations for $15 an hour, but he currently makes $13.60. Lammons doesn’t recommend the work to others because his job doesn’t treat people fairly, and it’s difficult for him to make a living.
“During the pandemic, most weeks all I had to eat was ramen noodles,” Lammons said.
Valerie King has worked as a cargo screener for American Airlines as a contractor for 14 years at the Los Angeles International Airport.
She said her starting wage was about $12, but she now makes $20 an hour after her union fought to raise wages. King said she traveled to Fort Worth to fight for better pay and because her union is about to go into bargaining agreements. She said airlines should care about contract workers.
“We’re the ones that’s out here doing the service and making sure that their customers are comfortable and safe on the travels they make and so we deserve a good pay wage,” she said.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.