It's being called the highest minimum wage in the country. Thousands of airport workers in New York and New Jersey — baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, people at concession stands — will see their hourly pay rise to $19 by 2023, after the Port Authority Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Thursday to require businesses to increase the minimum wage.
"We believe this substantially improved minimum wage for airport workers will greatly reduce turnover, improve morale and develop better trained workers as critical contributors to airport operations and security in this post 9/11 world," Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said in a statement.
The Port Authority manages some of the country's most bustling airports. Its decision follows nearly 800 messages written to the board by workers, businesses, academics and elected officials — and years in which airport workers marched, held strikes "and even got arrested on Martin Luther King Day," a major union representing workers wrote.
Under the new policy, changes begin Nov. 1. Hourly earnings of $10.45 for workers at Newark Liberty International Airport are scheduled to increase to $12.45.
Workers at JFK International and LaGuardia airports in New York, who currently earn a minimum wage of $13 per hour, will see a bump of 60 cents in November before the state's minimum wage becomes $15 in January. Wages for workers at the three airports will continue to increase in stages over a five-year period.
"This historic victory will give thousands of airport workers a fair living wage for decent work," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "It is the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do."
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said, "With today's vote, the agency has made it clear that they've heard the voices of approximately 40,000 workers who will be impacted by increased wages on both sides of the Hudson." He said that all of New Jersey's workers should earn a living wage.
Michael Saltsman, managing director at Employment Policies Institute, tells NPR that "it's deeply concerning" that authorities think a $15 minimum wage in New York that goes into effect Jan. 1 "is not enough." He thinks decisions for increases are coming too quickly, "without taking a rest stop to say, 'What are the consequences of $15?' "
Saltsman says that if businesses at the airport can't offset their higher costs with higher prices for consumers, then workers could see their hours cut or jobs eliminated. "The trend, as cost rises, is heading toward fewer employees and more automation," he says. "They feel like conveniences but they were actually part of someone's job description."
On the first day of 2018, 18 states saw minimum wage increases — from 4 cents in Alaska to a dollar in Maine.
Sylvia Wallingford, a business owner in Maine, told NPR's Joel Rose, "I hired fewer people because I can't — you can't afford to promise everybody a certain number of hours regardless of whether we're busy or not."
An "Analysis and Justification" report by the Port Authority found the increased minimum wage was unlikely to be offset by higher unemployment. Instead, it found evidence that businesses developed "channels of adjustment" to maintain stable levels of employment.
The agency also said there has been a turnover of more than 30 percent of privately employed airport workers every year, according to the statement. The high turnover limits their ability "to play a critical security role," the Port Authority said.
One employer, United Airlines, wouldn't comment on whether it plans to oppose the wage increases in court, according to WNYC.
Yasmeen Holmes, who has worked at Newark's airport for 16 years, spoke to WNYC about the wage increase. "I figured it would never happen. Maybe now I won't have to do so much overtime, and I can stay home with my kids."