Airport cleaners protest health, safety problems
Logan airport service workers along with service union representatives and other supporters rallied Dec. 17 to protest continuing hazardous and unsanitary working conditions for employees of ReadyJet, a cleaning contractor used locally by several airlines.
Non-union workers and representatives of 32BJ Service Employees International Union New England District 615 gathered outside Logan Airport Terminal C entrances and distributed leaflets alerting passengers to ReadyJet’s record on health and safety, timely wage payment and possible worker intimidation.
“ReadyJet is a really bad actor,” said Eugenio Villasante, a spokesperson for 32BJ SEIU and one of the rally organizers. “Airlines should hold their contractors accountable. When workers suffer, all airport users suffer.”
Workers at the rally spoke to the Banner about incidents and practices that they said endanger their safety, health, dignity and economic well-being.
“They want people to do a perfect job, but they don’t provide the right equipment, and we don’t have the right clothing for working outside.” said Jose Candelario, 20, who cleans planes for ReadyJet. “They don’t make a safe environment.”
Wages are often left out of paychecks, Candelario added.
“Every paycheck, there are hours missing,” he said. “You have to go to them, and then it takes weeks to get the money.”
Some of the reported conditions may also be public health hazards.
Edwin M. Lopez, 46, described a lack of protective clothing and antibacterial soap for workers who clean lavatories. Fluids spill on their shoes or clothes, he said. In one particularly horrific case, a co-worker’s face and shoulders were covered in waste while he worked from below to drain the lavatory from outside the plane. Lopez said he and other workers have often been directed by supervisors to clean the airplane’s cabin, and even to carry ice or other items into the plane while still wearing soiled clothing from lavatory extraction.
Lopez lost his $10-an-hour fulltime job at ReadyJet in September, and he believes it was because he communicated with union organizers and filed a complaint last year with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reporting unsanitary and unsafe conditions at ReadyJet.
In June, OSHA concluded an investigation into Lopez’s complaint and issued citations and penalties against ReadyJet for lack of proper protective equipment and effective training on hazardous chemicals and for failing to clean equipment the company loaned to employees. In addition, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office in July 2014 ordered ReadyJet to pay $13,000 restitution to employees and a civil penalty of $5,000 for illegal paycheck deductions.
Still, ReadyJet continues to operate at Logan.
The Dec. 17 rally was low-key and followed airport security rules that prohibit carrying signs, chanting and gathering in groups of more than 10. Besides handing out leaflets, small groups walked silently into offices of JetBlue, Delta and US Airways to deliver letters signed by about 100 workers and supporters. The letters describe citations and investigations against ReadyJet and urge each airline to ensure the contractor complies with laws on worker safety and rights.
Asked about the response to worker concerns and protests from the airlines, Villasante replied, “Radio silence.”
Tolle Graham, labor and environment coordinator for Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, was at the rally. MassCOSH plays an advisory role helping workers understand when conditions may be violations, and has interviewed ReadyJet workers, she said.
“It was clear they were being exposed to potentially infectious material,” Graham said. “It seems totally irresponsible that [the airlines] are allowing a contractor to operate with these safety issues.”
Another concern mentioned by 32BJ SEIU representatives and Graham is that ReadyJet has fired a large number of workers — nearly one-third of its Logan workforce since January, they said. The National Labor Relations Board and OSHA are investigating whether ReadyJet has illegally terminated workers for exercising protected rights.
“You cannot be fired for raising complaints,” Graham said. “It’s a pretty chilling thing for all workers.”
Radouane Fadel, 47, has worked at Logan for six years for a different non-union employer. At one time, he earned $9.75 an hour as a cleaner, but the company lost that contract and now Fadel earns only $8 an hour to do tasks such as wheelchair assistance, baggage handling and security. He would like to work full time but nearly all positions at the company are part-time, he said.
None of the workers interviewed have employer-provided health insurance.
Non-union airport workers like Fadel will get a little financial relief on Jan. 1 when the Massachusetts Port Authority implements a $10 wage floor policy for contracted service workers. This increase, set to rise to $11 in 2016, comes ahead of the incremental increases statewide that will bring Massachusetts’ minimum wage to $9 in 2015, $10 in 2016 and $11 by 2017. The Massport decision came after several years of 32BJ SEIU’s organizing on behalf of airport workers. Tempering this victory somewhat, 25 full-time ReadyJet workers had their hours cut to part-time after Massport approved the wage hike, according to SEIU.
Now, airport workers are continuing to ask for not only fair and timely pay, but safe and sanitary working conditions and the right to organize and report violations without punishment.
“We are trying,” Fadel said. “A mouth which is closed cannot be fed. We have to raise our voice.”
ReadyJet declined to comment for this story. Inquiries by the Banner to US Airways, JetBlue and Delta were not answered.