NEWARK, NJ — Downtown Newark’s Military Park swelled with cries of “health care, now!” on Thursday as a group Newark Liberty International Airport workers rallied for the Healthy Terminals Act (A2487), a bill that would bring 10,000 employees much-needed health coverage.
With passengers from all over the United States moving through Newark Liberty International Airport and the airport train station, the hourly workers who handle their baggage, check them in and ensure ease of travel must expose themselves to high-exposure environments each day. The legislation would require employers to pay a $4.54-an-hour supplement in addition to minimum wage.
The bill is being sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and has support from Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Even during a time of drastically reduced passenger volumes, members of the airport workers unions, SEIU Local 32BJ and UNITE100, say their lives and safety are at risk.
“I’m sick and tired of living without health care. What’s the point of health care if I have to pay $160 a payback and the coverage is bad?” said Richard Chisolm, a baggage handler at Newark Airport. “If we all had health care, we could spend more of that money on our homes and our families.”
Across the river in New York, legislators in both houses passed the same bill in July to protect workers at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airports. A 2019 study by SEIU found that nearly 35% of airport workers could be uninsured — the passage of Health Terminals would also mean a standard benefits supplement rate and paid leave requirements for covered airport and train station workers.
Currently, workers are allowed only five paid sick days under New Jersey state law, far fewer than they would need in order to recover if they contract the coronavirus.
At the same time, airline industries are bleeding cash and facing major disruptions to the business for the foreseeable future. According to SEIU, 2,750 of its members across all industries have been laid off as a result of the pandemic.
Trade groups are pushing back against the bill’s passage, saying it will “sicken” the industry. But according to organizers, the $30 billion bailout from the CARES act and more expected from the next round of federal stimulus must extend to workers.
32BJ secretary treasurer Larry Engelstein said providing affordable health care to subcontracted workers is not only the ethical choice, but will keep passengers safer too.
“We don’t seem yet to be able to show the kind of solidarity and recognition that if they don’t have health care, not only are they endangering themselves, they’re endangering the traveling public and everybody when they come home,” he said. “That to me is incoherent as a matter of public policy and shameful as a matter of corporate greed.”
The bill is up for a vote by the state’s Senate Labor Committee on Monday, when workers plan to testify.
“The Healthy Terminals Act could not be more important right now— airport workers have suffered enough,” Weinberg said by way of video message on Thursday. “If frontline, essential airport workers have healthcare, and the means to see a doctor, we will have healthier workers, passengers and communities. New York’s legislature already passed the same bill, and now New Jersey must make it a priority. I urge the Senate Labor Committee to pass the bill on Monday.”