Lee Harris
Bailed-out major airlines have outsourced ground work to subcontractors. Injuries and fatalities on the tarmac are taking off.
November 29, 2023
5:30 AM
This article appears in the December 2023 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
This story contains graphic images of injuries.
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY – Swissport’s air cargo warehouse at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) is a cross between a morgue, a medical way station, and a modern-day treasure cove. In the warehouse, which is roughly the size of two football fields, narrow lanes wind past boxes of costly merchandise.
The warehouse is a cross section of the global luxury goods market, piled high with temperature- and time-sensitive commodities. On any given day, these may include designer handbags, electronics, fine art, sports cars, or perishables like fresh produce and seafood. Live animals come through, too: butterflies, tropical fish destined for aquariums, and crates of lab mice. Also, medical supplies, including vaccines and hazardous materials. Perhaps most critically, human remains—bodies that are typically being shipped home for burial—pass through this warehouse on the way to their final resting place.
The subcontracted workers who pick their way through this cargo, checking air waybills and jotting down notes, sustain a growing segment of the global transportation sector that is both high-end and corner-cutting.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, port congestion and disruptions in maritime shipping prompted more companies to transport goods by air—not only in the bellies of passenger planes, but on windowless aircraft kitted out exclusively for cargo. Ocean shipping liners like Maersk, synonymous with maritime transport, acquired air freight divisions. Boeing has predicted that the global air freighter fleet will jump from around 2,000 in 2022 to more than 3,600 in 2040.
Greater reliance on air shipping is intensifying the exploitation of a largely invisible class of workers. Whereas dockworkers are heavily unionized and reaffirmed their control of port infrastructure in contract talks last year, airport ground workers have little say about the conditions under which pricey commodities circulate through their warehouses. In fact, many aren’t even employees of the companies for which they work.
Since 2001, airline service work has been increasingly outsourced. Swissport, the biggest global contractor of airport handling staff, is emblematic of that shift. The cargo workers at Newark are just one of the cells Swissport operates across 88 airports in North America, which also include fleet services—baggage handling and cabin cleaning—and in-airport services like ticketing and wheelchair agents.
Those jobs were once handled in-house by major airlines like United. But the airlines have laid off unionized career employees and contracted out tasks, like United’s cargo work at Newark, to subcontractors whose staff skew young and Black or Latino, according to employees and to 32BJ SEIU, a labor union organizing workers at several Swissport locations. Many are immigrants who speak little English.
“Swissport is very humbling,” said Alphonso, a ramp agent at LaGuardia, whose name has been changed at his request. “We don’t feel like we’re treated right. We don’t feel like we’re supplied with the right materials to do our jobs.”
Multiple workers told the Prospect that understaffing, a lack of training, and time pressure have led to the mishandling of freight.
In his first days at LaGuardia, Alphonso said, he felt frightened and confused. Swissport’s training exclusively involved computer modules, he said, which were a poor substitute for hands-on experience.
“The training I got was from my co-workers. And they aren’t trainers,” he said. “When I first got onto the ramp and saw the plane, I was like, shocked. I didn’t know how close I’m allowed to get to the plane. If I got close enough, I don’t know at what point does the engine suck me in. I don’t know if I’m even supposed to be in front of the engine at all.”
That is not just a hypothetical scenario. Courtney Edwards, a 34-year-old mother of three who worked as a ramp agent for a subsidiary of American Airlines, died in December 2022 after being sucked into an airplane’s left engine. An employee of GAT Airline Ground Support, another subcontractor, also died last year, when her hair was caught in a conveyor belt.
Work in the aviation industry has become more dangerous since the pandemic. Injuries that led workers to miss at least one day of work increased 17 percent in 2022 compared with 2019, according to a Wall Street Journal review of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data. (Injuries at Swissport’s rival subcontractors, like dnata and GAT, jumped even more dramatically, with dnata reporting a 54 percent increase.)
That data does not include Swissport USA. Injury data for 2022 is missing from public filings, and the company appears not to have provided complete injury data for several years. (Asked about the missing data, Swissport did not comment.) But over the past decade, OSHA has cited Swissport dozens of times for safety violations, which have resulted in injuries including bone fractures and crushed limbs. The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a grassroots network of worker groups, ranked Swissport as one of its “Dirty Dozen” unsafe employers this year.
While Swissport employees perform similar work to that of direct employees of the major airlines, they earn lower pay and benefits. This may make them function as a pool of spare labor, easier to fire when demand for their work slackens.
During the pandemic, Congress passed a Payroll Support Program aimed specifically at protecting airline workers and preventing mass layoffs. Swissport USA received $170 million in payroll support aid, yet it nevertheless laid off more than 2,800 workers. The most recent squeeze follows a trend in the highly cyclical airline industry, where crises have repeatedly served as opportunities for restructuring at workers’ expense.
Now, Swissport workers at airports across the country are seeking to unionize. Over the summer, 32BJ SEIU won a runoff against the Machinists Union (IAM) to represent Swissport workers at Newark. (IAM represents United employees at Newark, and also represents some Swissport employees at other airports, including in Las Vegas and Phoenix.) Meanwhile, Swissport workers at Chicago O’Hare elected to unionize with SEIU Local 1, which represents service workers across the Midwest. If the organizing drive takes off, the unionization efforts could unsettle not only Swissport, but the entire system of subcontracting and outsourcing airline work.
The Prospect interviewed ten current or former Swissport employees spread across Newark, LaGuardia, Washington Dulles, and Boston Logan Airports. Many of the workers described a high-churn workplace that lacks basic equipment, training, and dignity. They argued that inadequate training and poor conditions not only lead to accidents and injuries, but have also intensified travel chaos, and led to the mishandling of precious cargo, including, according to two workers at separate airports, caskets carrying human remains.
“The health and safety of all our workers is Swissport’s highest priority,” Swissport said in response to a request for comment for this story. The company declined to address workers’ specific allegations, saying it was not given enough detail to investigate them, but added, “Swissport is also proud to provide competitive benefits and pays some of the highest wages in the industry to our valued workers. We respect their right to choose labor representation and negotiate in good faith.”
Jessica Meeks beamed at me as we sat down to discuss Swissport. Though she believes that conditions need to change, and has grueling memories of her nine years with the company, Meeks ties up her stories with a bow, adding, “but it all worked out in the end.”
Meeks now works as an export agent in buildup, building freight on what workers call “cookie sheets,” or aluminum pallets. She previously worked in Newark’s “back yard,” where Swissport workers load cargo for United. Ramp agents employed by United bring cargo to and from the gate, and Swissport employees take over from there in the back yard and warehouse, doing the heavier manual labor of packing cargo. Office work is almost entirely female, and mostly men staff the back yard, but Meeks was recruited for her work ethic and upbeat leadership style.
“What you learn in training doesn’t correlate to what you actually do on the floor. Because of that lack of training, anything can happen to anybody that works here,” Meeks told me.
Meeks speaks from experience. When she wears shorts, it’s hard not to notice her right leg, where deep scarring craters the front and back of her calf like molten wax. At first, she was reluctant to discuss the injury. “Swissport did do right by me,” she insisted, because the company paid her medical bills. But with proper training and equipment, she said, “my injury probably could have been avoided.”
Meeks’s injury became infected after what she believes was inadequate attention by doctors at Swissport’s on-site clinic.
It was 2021, and Meeks was almost finished with her shift. She was loading up a plane headed to Frankfurt, Germany, and needed to connect a string of yellow metal dollies. Her co-worker pushed them over on an electric “tug,” a small transport vehicle used at the warehouse.
Then, the co-worker dismounted—he later claimed that he braked, Meeks said—but the tug kept rolling, pushing the dollies toward her. He climbed back in to stop the tug, but the vehicle accelerated. Either he accidentally hit the gas, Meeks believes, or the equipment was faulty.
Propelled by the tug, a metal dolly crashed into her calf, pinning her leg against the carts she had been stringing together. It was over in seconds—her co-worker helped her hobble away—but the pain was severe. She was taken to the Medport, the on-site clinic for work injuries.
At the Medport, the doctor gave Meeks a recreational drug and alcohol test—she tested negative, she said—briefly examined her leg, and sent her home. Because it was a work injury, she was told, she could not see her own doctor.
Two days later, Meeks returned to the Medport with a swollen leg. A new doctor said she should stay out of work for a week, she said. They tested her for diabetes and checked for blood clots, and noticed significant swelling. She pointed out that her leg was blistering, and a doctor reassured her, she recalled, saying, “That’s OK, that’s your body releasing fluid.”
After a week, Meeks was sent back to work, on “light duty,” she said. That involved getting up and down all day to weigh packages, putting pressure on her leg. Multiple workers told the Prospect that light-duty jobs often involve strenuous tasks. At home, Meeks’s blisters burst, leaving large open wounds on her calf. Several times that week, Meeks came back to the Medport for checkups. One doctor cleaned her open wounds like a regular cut, with hydrogen peroxide, she said.
The next time Meeks came into the Medport, about two weeks after the initial injury, was the first time she felt that she was taken seriously. “It wasn’t until I actually had this Black lady who came in and took a look at my leg, and saw that it was still swollen, and saw that the wounds were open. She gave me the right stuff to clean it with,” she said. “After she saw my leg, everything changed.”
Until that point, Meeks had seen a different doctor on each visit, she said, all of whom were white men, and noticed that “nobody was really sharing notes.” The female doctor seemed to pay more attention, Meeks said. She gave Meeks a thicker ointment intended for burn victims, not just peroxide, and called the other doctors in to say that she thought Meeks needed to be taken to see a specialist.
She was sent to an orthopedist and a plastic surgeon, she said, who confirmed that peroxide was not enough to clean the wounds, and found that Meeks’s leg was so severely infected that she would need to take antibiotics for weeks, administered through a PICC line in her arm. Ultimately, Meeks underwent three surgeries, including a skin graft. It was four months before she could return to work. She was paid during this extended leave, she said, though not for the initial week she took immediately following the injury.
Reflecting on the injury, Meeks said that Swissport “didn’t give us proper training to work in that back yard.” After returning, she said, “they tried to quote-unquote retrain us. But I felt like their retraining was bullshit, because all they did was ask us questions on how we can make sure this doesn’t happen again. Instead of going more in depth, like, let’s show you how to really move the dollies, how to load properly, how to drive the forklift, how to make sure we’re checking our surroundings. They didn’t do none of that.”
The majority of workers interviewed by the Prospect said that they taught themselves and each other to use Swissport’s heavy machinery and comply with demands from the parent airline, without receiving hands-on training.
Victoria Welch, who was fired this year from Swissport Newark, said that workers were largely trained on computer modules that outlined general requirements from United.
“It was never anything specified for Swissport, besides the uniforms and stuff like that. It was just what United wanted overall, but not what you were actually going to be doing downstairs,” she said.
Technically, Welch added, it was the responsibility of supervisors and managers to train new hires. “But it was always pushed on the entry-level agents. Once we got downstairs, we’ll be doing it or trying to get the hang of it for about a week, two weeks, and still struggling … But when another new hire came downstairs, they were like, ‘Look, I need you to train that person.’ And we’ll be like, ‘We’re not even fully trained. How you gonna have new hires training new hires?’ But that was their routine.”
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Workers cite worn-down equipment as evidence of underinvestment in safety.
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Workers cite worn-down equipment as evidence of underinvestment in safety.
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Workers cite worn-down equipment as evidence of underinvestment in safety.
Underinvestment in equipment can add to risks. Meeks is not sure if her accident was caused by faulty equipment. But, if it was, that would not be unusual. Across the country, according to 32BJ SEIU, Swissport workers report faulty and broken-down equipment, including forklifts with malfunctioning brakes, broken horns, and bald tires.
Keith Adams, a former Swissport employee at Dulles Airport, said he taught himself how to drive a forklift on the job by watching others. Their safety horns weren’t working, he said, so when he would turn a corner, he would instead shout, “Beep, beep!” Still, there were close calls, when people suddenly appeared in front of the forklift. That made Adams feel “really nauseous,” he said.
Beyond their own exposure to workplace hazards, multiple workers told the Prospect that understaffing, a lack of training, and time pressure has led to the mishandling of freight.
At Dulles, Adams said, a storage freezer for goods being transported on dry ice was often overcrowded. The warehouse added a cooling trailer, but that was also sometimes at capacity. Goods meant to be kept cold, including hazardous materials being transported for research purposes, were repeatedly left out overnight, he claimed.
Caskets carrying human remains, which are often heavy and unwieldy, have been mishandled and even dropped, according to Adams and another worker at EWR. Human remains were often moved using a cart, Adams said. When weighing a box containing human remains, workers are supposed to remove it from the cart, but have sometimes left the box on the cart, Adams said, where it has tipped over.
Beyond human remains, other types of sensitive cargo have been mishandled, too, employees said. Workers also complained of, and documented, cockroach and rodent infestations.
Some of the mice that infest Newark came from shipments destined for labs, one worker claimed, and could be distinguished from their feral cousins because they are sleeker. “It’s a couple of cancer mice—we call them cancer mice, mice that’s been injected with stuff for lab reasons—they running in that building,” the worker said. “Those containers they come in have been dropped or damaged, and they ran off.”
To understand the abject work conditions at airport subcontractors, it’s necessary to look back, before the pandemic, to the formative crisis of the modern airline industry.
“One of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry,” George W. Bush told the executives of major airlines gathered at Chicago O’Hare Airport on September 27, 2001.
“You stand against terror by flying the airplanes, and by maintaining them. You stand against terror by loading a bag or serving a passenger,” Bush said. “We must stand against terror by going back to work.”
The president’s words, issued in the wake of tragedy, sounded like a response to an unprecedented crisis. But the speech was not so different from orders Bush had issued a few months earlier. At that time, the framing was less high-flown.
In March 2001, Bush issued an executive order preventing a potential strike by airline mechanics. “It’s important for the hard-working people of America to make sure air service is not disrupted,” he said, threatening to put down any airline strike, at any carrier.
He was building on previous invocations of emergency powers, under the Railway Labor Act, to prevent airline work stoppages. In 1997, President Bill Clinton ordered pilots back to work minutes after their strike commenced.
Presidential-level efforts to quell unrest were responding to an airline industry in turmoil following the deregulation enacted under Jimmy Carter. When prices and routes were regulated, airlines competed to offer a better passenger experience for the same price, leading to a race to the top on service. After deregulation, they competed to cut costs. Major carriers had faced new competition from low-fare competitors like Southwest and JetBlue, and union gains over the same period further threatened management.
The September 11 attacks sent judders through the airline industry. For days after the attack, air service was suspended; ridership did not return to pre-9/11 levels until 2004. The crisis can be understood as a trigger for the kind of cyclical culling that is common in transportation infrastructure, which the railroads have also gone through.
Following that decline, Congress authorized $5 billion in direct grants to compensate airlines for halting flights and resulting losses, and created an Air Transportation Stabilization Board with the ability to grant up to $10 billion in loans and loan guarantees to the airlines. The future of the carriers was actually decided in bankruptcy court, and in the ensuing wave of restructurings and mergers, where major airlines broke union contracts, citing force majeure, subsequently cutting wages and pension plans.
Major airlines like American successfully fought to outsource cargo operations after the September 11 attacks.
Congressional loan guarantees made few demands of their recipients, with no strings attached to protect employees. Their primary function appears to have been bolstering capital markets, which were skittish about the sector. Still, Congress’s loan guarantee board bailed out only some airlines, leaving others, including United, to work out their finances in court. That was in line with the mood at banks. “Wall Street was all but rooting for United’s dissolution, arguing that the only way to cure the problem of overcapacity was for a major carrier to fold,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 2003. Over the next decade, airlines also became increasingly financialized, as their frequent-flier programs came to be worth more than the underlying airline.
Unions were on the back foot during post-crisis negotiations. Prior to 9/11, many fleet service workers had been employed in-house, many of them represented by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and the Machinists (IAM). That changed after the crisis, as carriers turned to subcontractors.
In 2003, United fought to ratify a contract that would allow it to outsource most of its cargo operations. When it exited bankruptcy in 2006, United had 30 percent fewer employees.
Liesl Orenic, a labor historian at Dominican University who previously worked as a baggage handler, said that after 9/11, it became easier for subcontractors to “nibble away” at fleet service work.
Meanwhile, mechanics resisted the outsourcing of mechanical work on airlines to overseas maintenance bases. They were relatively successful; mechanics are directly employed by airlines at much higher rates than cargo workers, though the share of heavy aircraft maintenance done overseas has tripled since 2003, according to a TWU study.
“The place airline unions have tried to hold the line is the outsourcing of mechanical work to overseas bases,” Orenic said.
But the hiving-off of less-skilled fleet service work by contractors hurt the strength of other workers on the tarmac. When unions controlled more of the shop, Orenic said, there were avenues from jobs in ramp work and baggage handling into mechanical work. “Mechanics who recognized their power, as a work group, recognized also that they should organize with lesser-skilled workers, because you wanted to maintain pathways of upward mobility, and protect yourself against downward mobility,” she said.
That was true even though the IAM was a craft and not an industrial union. “Part of protecting craft work meant protecting your flank, recognizing that the work of servicing airplanes requires a variety of different work groups,” said Orenic. “You want to have all of them protected.”
“What the airlines do is force those contractors to compete for who can pay the least—and compete against the direct workers [employed by the airlines]. That forces a race to the bottom,” said Rob Hill, executive vice president of 32BJ SEIU. Nationally, the union represents more than 35,000 airport workers, and has been organizing Swissport workers at airports including Newark. But the campaigns can be an uphill battle, since many workers consider the job a temporary gig.
Swissport began life as the ground handling operation of Swissair Group, the national airline of Switzerland, which also owned the airport retailer Nuance and the catering service Gate Gourmet. In August 2001, deep in debt, Swissair announced plans for a buyout deal for Swissport.
Over the next two decades, Swissport traded hands between private equity groups and expanded to serve some 294 airports globally.
In 2020, Swissport received $170 million in payroll assistance through the federal CARES Act, which was meant to keep workers in their jobs. But while the company awaited the release of that federal funding, Swissport laid off more than 2,000 workers.
Swissport technically complied with the terms of the rescue package, because the company made the layoffs prior to receiving the funding. “Treasury permitted layoffs up to the execution date of a PSP agreement, leading companies to ‘urgently’ fire employees before signing agreements,” a House investigation found.
“It’s important to remember that the entire air system shut down during the pandemic. Swissport was just one of many companies in the industry who sought the support of the government to take care of employees. We fully complied with the terms of the PSP agreement and used the funds exclusively for the continuation of payment of wages, salaries, and benefits to our workers. This has allowed us to protect thousands of jobs and preserve skilled labor that helped us ramp up quickly and safely post-pandemic,” Swissport said in a statement.
Much of the union organizing has focused on dangerous and unsanitary work conditions, and on winning material benefits for workers.
Internal communications obtained in the investigation show that in the weeks before the company received CARES Act funding, Swissport executives “urgently” sought to “furlough or terminate” staff. “Swissport’s receipt of payroll assistance for jobs that no longer exist is contrary to Congress’ intent,” Reps. James Clyburn (D-SC), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Maxine Waters (D-CA) wrote in a 2020 letter to former Swissport USA CEO Frank Mena.
Pandemic-era work conditions, furloughs, and layoffs are among the grievances now fueling ground crews’ growing movement to unionize. Although it will be an uphill battle for the company to recognize the unions and enter contract negotiations, SEIU has been helping to organize Swissport workers at major airports for years.
Last December, SEIU organized a strike of workers at Newark, Chicago O’Hare, and Boston Logan Airports, to protest unfair labor conditions at Swissport. A total of 15 airports across the country participated in rallies and workplace actions during the busy holiday season.
Much of the union organizing has focused on dangerous and unsanitary work conditions, and on winning material benefits for workers. 32BJ helped airport workers in New York and New Jersey win a $19 minimum wage, and helped ensure they actually received checks, the union said.
But the organizing drive could also shed light on the way subcontracting has turned airline workers against each other.
Workers described an incentive structure for management and promotion that can seem arbitrary at best, and at worst, actively anti-meritocratic, designed to punish workers with initiative, and select for loyal recruits who will ask few questions.
Colleagues who are injured on the job or who make costly mistakes have been quickly promoted, several said, in a seemingly counterintuitive move. According to Adams, on two separate occasions, workers who dropped human remains were promoted to supervisor.
“They [Swissport] try to use people that don’t know what to do, to make them supervisors, so they can point fingers at them,” Adams argued.
Adams and Victoria Welch both became involved with 32BJ SEIU, joining the union and attempting to organize co-workers, before being fired. Both claimed that they were fired in retaliation for their union activity, and the union helped them file unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Other workers who remain at Swissport echoed their concerns about an unfair system of promotion.
Nearly every Swissport employee interviewed by the Prospect complained of “favoritism” in the company’s use of the points system for conduct. Favoritism can refer to a number of types of bias, including nepotistic hiring. The constant is that an inconsistently enforced points system means some workers rack up violations with no consequences, they said, while others are fired on the spot for the same behavior, with little or no warning.
“They push their best workers out, and always rehiring new people so they can manipulate their minds, and have them work the way they want them to work,” Meeks said.
Jonathan Rodriguez, a ramp agent for Swissport at LaGuardia, pointed to an incident last New Year’s Eve, when he claims that he was unfairly disciplined—and then further punished for speaking out.
It was December 31st, and near the end of Rodriguez’s shift, Swissport received news that several airplanes had been diverted to LaGuardia, he said. A group of workers including Rodriguez were asked to stay late—but the company never called “mandatory,” requiring them to stay, he claimed. He apologized that he could not stay, he said, and left to celebrate the New Year with his family, who are Catholic.
When he returned to work the next day, Rodriguez said, he was told that he and others who had left were being suspended for almost a week without pay. Afterward, he said, “I came back, spoke to them, and told them, ‘Respectfully, look, I know what ended up happening here was wrong. It wasn’t professional. You guys didn’t go from a verbal warning to a write-up and a suspension—you just skipped those two steps.’ I told them, that’s not the law. I know my rights. And then I guess ever since I said things like that, I feel like that’s when things started going downhill for me.”
Then, Rodriguez alleges, his scheduling changed. He would work from 2:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and then he would be scheduled for a shift starting 3.5 hours later, at 4 a.m., giving him no time to rest, he said. Or he would be scheduled to work two weeks straight without a day off. Rodriguez said that he felt that the changes were retaliation for his complaints.
Lee Harris
Swissport workers Wanda Frazier, left, and Kim Ikner are organizing with SEIU Local 32BJ.
Kim Ikner, a spindly 62-year-old who has been an outspoken supporter of 32BJ SEIU, has been at Swissport Newark since 2018. Ikner said that there is frequent turnover in middle management, too. “It’s like retail—a revolving door. You go one day, next day you don’t even see them.”
Workers at Newark, LaGuardia, and Dulles told the Prospect that there were few or no white employees among entry-level staff.
“If we had more of a sense of privilege, I guess, we wouldn’t be working for Swissport,” said Alphonso. “If you’re working for Swissport, you don’t have a really good reputation in the airport. If you’re working for American, or for Delta, or for United, you have more respect.”
Ikner said she tries to encourage her young colleagues to stick up for themselves. “The strategy of this company, as far as my assessment, they hire young people strategically, because young people do not know [their rights],” she said.
Swissport has repeatedly faced lawsuits alleging discrimination and harassment. For example, in 2010, Swissport Fueling, Inc., agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a racial harassment lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC alleged that fuelers employed by Swissport, who came from African countries including Nigeria, Sudan, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, were routinely subject to harassment by a Swissport manager. The manager repeatedly called the African workers “monkeys,” the suit alleged, and made demeaning references to slavery.
Airline subcontractors say they are struggling to find new recruits. A recent survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that 60 percent of ground handlers felt they do not have enough staff to ensure “smooth operations.”
In September, I interviewed 19-year-old Sabrina Ketchum, who left a job at Dunkin’ Donuts to join Swissport’s cabin-cleaning crew at Boston Logan Airport, where her boyfriend was also working. Ketchum cleans galleys and seats, and takes the trash out of the cockpit.
The job pays better than her work in fast food—a factor many workers cited as a reason to join Swissport. Others appreciated that the paychecks are weekly, rather than every other week.
To clean the galleys, workers like Ketchum are only provided wrist-length latex gloves, she said. She wishes they had rubber gloves that extended to her elbows, since when they clean planes after long flights, like Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines, she often must reach deep into trash cans to collect feminine products soaked with blood.
Alphonso, of LaGuardia, said that his team is also undersupplied with sterile gloves. Instead, they have relied on the same gloves they use for heavy-duty work outdoors. The cleaning spray bottles are broken, he said, so they unscrew the caps and pour the chemicals onto paper towels, where they have gotten onto workers’ skin.
Dozens of workers at Swissport LaGuardia, including Rodriguez, joined a protest earlier this year to protest unsafe working conditions, according to Documented. They cited vehicles with faulty brakes, a lack of gear, and even a faulty hose for emptying airplane lavatories, which they said has leaked and sprayed workers with fecal matter.
Former baggage handler Chad Infiesta said that he was fired the day after he spoke out about unsanitary working conditions. According to 32BJ SEIU, Infiesta later reached a settlement with the NLRB and Swissport that granted him back pay and mandated that Swissport reinstate him.
Tensions between labor and management run hotter on sweltering days. Without air-conditioning, Adams said of the warehouse at Dulles, “we sweat through our shirts.” On one especially hot day, he recalled, management came down to rebuke a colleague. “He was tying boards, and he wasn’t moving as fast as other people. They be watching the cameras from upstairs, then they come downstairs just to argue. They picked one of the dudes I know, and started yelling at him because he wasn’t working as fast.”
Over the summer, workers in Boston sweltered under extreme heat. Cabin crew wore high-visibility reflective uniforms that are heavy and hot. Ketchum, who is petite, and her co-workers sweated profusely. Instead of leaving on the air-conditioning in planes after they deboard, Ketchum said, or finding better-fitting uniforms, her manager has sent pointed emails about the importance of hygiene and controlling body odor.
Earlier this summer, Ketchum was cleaning a Turkish Airlines cabin when she became so overheated that she fainted. She was taken to the hospital, and diagnosed with heat exhaustion. The company has done little to alleviate these risks, she said.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Swissport “sends vans along the tarmac to distribute cold bottled water to staff.” Ketchum said, “I’ve never seen this water bottle truck, ever.”
Those grievances have led many Swissport workers to support unionization efforts like those led by 32BJ SEIU. But many remain opposed, or ambivalent.
Asked about unionization, Alphonso, the LaGuardia ramp agent, wavered. “I think it’s a good idea, but, at the same time, it’s just a subcontractor company. It’s not, like, an official airline. So, to be honest, I’m not really sure about it. I don’t see Swissport as a serious company, that’s worthy of a union,” he said.
“The reason airlines hire a subcontractor is to save on money, so that they don’t have to be hiring their own employees,” he added. “If Swissport has to start paying their employees more, that means that they gotta ask the airlines to charge more money, and that would mean that the airlines would be like, all right, we might as well start bringing in our own employees, and forget about Swissport.”
Lee Harris is a staff writer at The American Prospect. In 2020, she co-founded New York Focus, an investigative news site on New York politics. Prior to that, she was editor of the independent newspaper at the University of Chicago.
November 29, 2023
5:30 AM
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