Putting the Pieces Back Together: Comprehensive Solutions for a Fragmented System at MSP

In response to concerns raised by elderly and disabled passengers and the airport workers who provide care for them, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has taken initial steps to improve the quality of service we are able to provide to travelers to and from Minnesota.

Recognizing the importance of experienced and healthy workers, staff recommended the MAC include worker retention and paid sick leave provisions for airline contractors licensed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).

Properly addressing the retention of experienced and healthy workers would be a great first step, one that we hope will apply to all airport workers. We also hope the MAC will ensure that workers’ ability to use their earned sick leave is not impeded by subjective judgments from management, or by a lack of quality, affordable health insurance.

It would be a cruel irony to provide paid sick days on paper, but require a doctor’s note of a worker who cannot afford to pay for a visit to the doctor. This is just one of the hazards of solving complex problems without adequate representation of the workers who serve on the frontline of that system.

In order to solve the many issues that workers and passengers face, we must ensure that airport workers have a voice on the job, and are able to advocate for themselves and the elderly and disabled passengers they care for.

Labor Peace: a Comprehensive Solution for Workers and Passengers, which Stabilizes Revenue Streams for the MAC

The MAC has an opportunity to enact a labor peace policy in order to ensure safe, efficient operations and a stable revenue stream. A labor peace policy requires employers and unions to use non-disruptive means to settle disputes, in order to avoid strikes, lock-outs, and other work stoppages. This process would prevent disruption of airport operations and interference in the operations of other revenue-generating businesses at the Airport.

A comprehensive approach is necessary for workers’ voices to be heard, and to address the issues stemming from understaffing, low pay and lack of training for workers employed by subcontractors to provide a host of services to passengers, including disabled and elderly passengers.

One in four Minnesotans will be 65 or older by 2030.[1] Disabilities become more common with age, with 38 percent of those aged 75-84 reporting a disability.[2] As the “age wave” rolls in, we must ensure that there are sufficient numbers of well-trained airport workers to provide adequate, dignified care for travelers.

In a high-turnover environment, with inadequate training, workers are put in situations where they are asked to do important tasks that require time, experience and support that they simply do not have.

As it stands, workers are put in an unenviable situation. They are paid minimum wage with no sick time or other benefits and without the Federally-required “training to proficiency,”[3] they are placed in working conditions that are as stressful for them as they are for the passengers. Workers spoke at the MAC meeting about challenges they face every day on the job, as well as personal struggles of having to work multiple jobs, some up to 70 hours a week, just to provide for their families.

Nationwide, approximately 37 percent of families of airport cleaning and baggage workers receive Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or some combination. Overall, this amounts to $110 million per year in public assistance for just this one subset of underpaid airport workers.[4] Abera Siyoum is one of these workers:

“Even though I work almost 70 hours a week—and still it’s not enough for me to pay my bills—I’m dependent on the government for food stamps and health insurance. And because that isn’t enough to cover my bills, I don’t have any time to spend with my family.”

As one of our state’s largest places of employment—including for members of our dynamic East African community—the MAC has to opportunity to strengthen the region’s economy by ensuring that airport workers are able to support their families and spend money in their communities.

 

The Current Staff Report Falls Short

Yet, rather than seize this opportunity, the set of recommendations currently before the subcommittee fails to achieve a comprehensive solution. Even worse, the staff memorandum on services for disabled and elderly passengers takes a defensive tone, rather than a proactive and solution-orientated approach.

The report dismisses real passengers’ experiences and cites yet a third set of statistics—demonstrating the fractured and ineffective nature of complaint-gathering in and around MSP.[5] There are important questions to ask about the relationship between complaints registered by the MAC, by Delta, or by the Department of Transportation. For example, how many of these complaints were registered with all three entities? And how many real-world complaints were never registered officially at all?

How many passengers’ experiences mirror that of Nikki Villacicencio, who chose not to file a formal complaint when the airport worker who struggled by herself to lift her into her seat dropped her as her Delta flight was boarding at MSP? Nikki was 14 weeks pregnant at the time, and explains her skepticism behind complaint statistics this way:

“In a situation like that, sometimes you’re just so overwhelmed by it, that you can’t even think about writing it out. My husband and I are both transit advisors for the Met Council. We talk to disabled passengers all day long, and we ask, ‘Did you file a complaint,’ and they almost always say no.”

It seems unlikely that MAC staff were able to get a full picture of the issues facing passengers and workers when, by their own admission, they did not interview employees or passengers.[6]

 

Front Line Workers Talk to Passengers Every Day

The front line workers who provide care to disabled and elderly passengers have a more robust picture of passengers’ experiences than the current fragmented data-gathering system. Abdi Ali works for Airserv driving a cart for senior citizens and disabled passengers, and says:

“I enjoy talking to the passengers – they become part of your family. They tell you everything, like where they going, where they live.

“They tell you about their family, if they are going to a wedding or a graduation or something. Sometimes they share with you if they are sick or have cancer, which is sad because you see the person and they tell you stuff you don’t expect and then in a few minutes they are gone.

“I want my time helping senior citizens and passengers with disabilities to be good, but it is not always that way.

“Passengers complain to us all the time. You see two cases or one case each day, of someone complaining about how the company handled their situation.”

Front Line Workers Have Direct Knowledge of How Staffing Affects Service

Air Serv cabin cleaner Asmare Meshesha says:

“We…don’t have enough equipment – I can’t change my gloves or wash my hands between cleaning the lavatory and cleaning the rest of the plane, including the galley, where food is prepared.

“Our teams are small. There used to be seven people doing my job. Now there are five. If someone is sick, then we do the job with just four people. We are expected to do that job just as well as seven people should do. That makes it harder for us and we often get injuries.

“Because of those injuries and the problems we have had, I was elected by my co-workers to serve on the safely committee.

“But I don’t think they [Airserve management] are taking it seriously. I don’t even know the responsibility we have because I’ve never got any information from the company. Theoretically, it’s safety first, but I don’t think it’s really safety first at the airport.”

As of July of this year, due to the combination of contract changes and the regular turnover churn, less than half of the Air Serv “upstairs” employees had been on the job for six months or more. These workers include cart drivers, wheelchair assistants, unaccompanied minor runners, baggage runners, skycaps and ambassadors.

Cart driver Abdi Ali explains how turnover and understaffing combine to create an unworkable situation:

“Sometimes we are short of people. Even though we are cart drivers, sometimes we have do wheelchair, and then passengers have longer to wait for a cart because they are using cart divers to do two jobs – to drive the cart and then sometimes stop and do wheelchair at the gate. So that means that someone is waiting for a cart somewhere and needs help.

“They don’t have enough staffing because of the wages they pay. I have worked at the airport for more than seven years and I have made minimum wage the whole time. I started at $6.25. The only time I have ever had a raise is when the government raised the minimum wage.

“You cannot live on minimum wage. It’s difficult – two weeks you work and your paycheck is $400 or $300, it’s not worth it. People keep quitting and they keep hiring.”

Many Job Classifications Require Specialized Training

A disabled passenger—and the passenger’s equipment—will interact with many airport workers in the course of any given trip. Baggage handlers, TSA agents, and other airport workers also need specialized training on how to handle assistive devices appropriately.

St. Paul resident Jack Strahan uses a personalized wheelchair from the VA. His chair is essential to his mobility and quality of life, and worth tens of thousands of dollars.

“Once Delta punched a hole in the back of my chair – they put it in a luggage tray. They laid it down and things shifted around – it’s way too big for a luggage tray.

“They didn’t know jack about what they were doing with the chairs. It’s a problem.

“They wanted me to get the work done [to fix the chair] and they would “reimburse you right away.” I said no, can’t afford that, can’t be done. You have to fix this right now. They knew places to take it immediately and it got done.

“I’m articulate and I don’t let anyone tell me that I can’t do that. A lot of other disabled people can’t do that. Some people have a difficult time speaking—maybe they have to use an electronic voice that’s not conducive to arguing about “we’ll pay you later.”

Cart driver Abera Siyoum has this striking example of understaffing and the importance of specialized training for a number of positions.

“I recently had to life a 270-pound passenger, but when we called for assistance, they said they didn’t have anyone to help. We lifted the passenger with the help of flight attendants.”

Fear of Flying: Complaints Don’t Count Lost Customers

If passengers have a negative experience, or expect to have a negative experience, they may avoid flying all together. Jim Lovold uses a wheel chair, and has spent the last 24 years avoiding air travel.

“The last time I flew was 24 years ago.

“In 1990, I flew from Minneapolis to Seattle. At one point, they put me on this thing, it’s hard to describe, but it looked like a dolly cart for people. I felt so insecure as I went down the hall, that I was squeezing the flight attendant’s hand so hard! I felt bad, because she was wearing a ring and I know it hurt.

“I’ve wanted to fly since then, but I’m too scared of getting on and off the plane. I have friends who have flown more recently, and their experiences have been just as bad. Everybody has horror stories.”

A Positive Vision for MSP

The MAC has the power to work with stakeholders—including seniors, disabled passengers, the airport workers who provide care to them, and airlines, including Delta—to ensure the workers who provide essential services are given the resources they need to succeed in their jobs, and to support their families and communities.

For example, the MAC might take Jack Strahan’s vision into account:

“I’m working with ADAPT to raise awareness of our needs at the airport because it’s not good enough for us to reach minimum standards – we need an airport that works for all of us.

“As people with disabilities, it’s our job to tell corporations and organizations what needs to happen so that we can access services just like able-bodied people can access services.

“I’m a strong supporter of the idea that people should get a living wage for the work that they do. That’s why I’m proud to partner not just with ADAPT, but with SEIU and the people who work at the airport to help people get a living wage for the work they do.

“So what would this airport look like?

“I would like to see an airport where, if you came in a wheelchair, well-trained agents would get you and your wheelchair to the gate, to get it packaged, ready for the airplane. We want someone who knows how to work with the different air carriers and who can work with your particular disability so that you can be put in a part of the airplane that is convenient to you, not just being thrown about.

Having those people around, having them trained, having them supported by the airport commission, and the air carriers there, would go a long way towards making the experience a better one for disabled people coming through.”

 

 

 

 



[1] Governor’s Workforce Development Council, “Minnesota’s Primary Care Provider Shortage,” Dec 2011, p3. Available at http://www.gwdc.org/docs/publications/Primary_Care_Report.pdf, accessed Aug 3, 2014.

[2] Minnesota Compass, Aging Overview, http://www.mncompass.org/aging/overview, accessed Aug 3, 2014.

[4] UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, “Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to Restore Good Jobs at American Airports,” Miranda Dietz, Peter Hall, and Ken Jacobs, October 2013.

[5] Metropolitan Airports Commission, Management and Operations Committee Agenda for August 4, 2014. Item 9a, Memorandum dated July 24, 2014.

[6] Metropolitan Airports Commission, Management and Operations Committee Agenda for August 4, 2014. Item 9a, Memorandum dated July 24, 2014.

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