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O’Hare, Midway Contract Employees Celebrate City Council-Approved Wage Increase: ‘It’s Been A Long Time Coming’

Contract workers at city airports will make $17 come July and $18 in 2023. While celebrating the boost, workers are still fighting for health benefits and better communication from management on mandatory overtime.

People wear masks as they move through Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport on May 9, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Before the sun is up, Brian Grove starts his commute from his Auburn Gresham home to work at O’Hare Airport five days a week.

Grove’s commute can take up to two hours one way, but knowing he will soon receive a wage increase makes the travel more worth it.

Grove is one of the thousands of airport contract workers in the city who will benefit from a wage increase recently passed by the City Council. Grove, who works as a lavatory agent at O’Hare, makes $15 an hour. Come July, he will make $17 an hour under the ordinance.

“I am ecstatic about it,” Grove said. “It’s been a long time coming. Our hard work has finally paid off.”

The base wage for some city airport workers will increase to $18 in 2023 and go up by the consumer price index every year after that, according to the ordinance.

Grove has worked at O’Hare for about two and a half years and has been a vocal member of SEIU Local 1, the union that worked with Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to pass the new ordinance.

As a father to four daughters, Grove said the wage bump will open up financial opportunities he previously didn’t think possible, like paying his mortgage and utilities while saving money for his children’s future.

Amid airport worker shortages and travel hiccups due to COVID-19 — and crowded airports at the beginning of the pandemic that stalled folks at O’Hare for hours — contract workers have felt the brunt of a heavy workload during the pandemic but were not treated as essential, Grove said.

“At first there was a paranoia we were going to get sick,” Grove said. “Sometimes I had to go on the airplane to check the toilets with people [there not wearing masks], and that was scary.”

More pay offers Grove greater financial stability and makes him feel more appreciated by the city and his company, especially after bargaining for the move alongside SEIU, he said.

“It makes me feel vindicated that we are finally being taken seriously for what we do,” he said. “We felt like we were taken for granted, so the wage increase really helps.”

SEIU represents about 2,100 contract workers at O’Hare, including wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, cargo handlers, janitors, passenger service attendants, skycaps and security officers, said SEIU spokesperson Ankur Singh. There are about 7,000 contract workers in total at both airports, he said.

Contractors at more than 50 service providers at O’Hare and Midway will be impacted by the ordinance, Singh said.

Cierra Swain, a Midway wheelchair assistant for six years, said the extra money will help her pay for a house she recently bought with her mother.

Swain remembers hearing the news about the ordinance passing and the eruption of cheers at work. At first, she could not believe it.

“I felt like I was in a movie,” Swain said.

Beniamino Capellupo, senior adviser on labor for the city of Chicago, praised the city’s efforts in standing up for essential airport workers during the pandemic.

“With the passage of the Airports’ Ordinance, Mayor Lightfoot and members of City Council demonstrate their ongoing commitment to lifting up essential workers who put their lives on the line every day,” Capellupo said in a statement. “This ordinance will create good, sustainable jobs with competitive wages that will help Chicago’s economy grow. “

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Airplanes and workers move on the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport on May 9, 2021.

While the news has been welcomed by airport workers around the city, the work is not done to best protect employees, said Michael Ortiz, who has worked at Midway for 18 years as a wheelchair attendant and passenger service aid.

Ortiz said the wage bump will help his family keep up with the city’s increased cost of living and high property taxes, and it will attract more workers to fill the labor demand, but he wants health care benefits for full- and part-time union members.

“This wage increase was a huge win, but we are still not done,” said Ortiz, a steward with SEIU. “We are bargaining a better contract to make sure our workers are safe and [we get] health care for everyone. We do have a lot of single mothers that work for us. … They need that for our children, and more regular raises like this.”

Contract workers also want to see better treatment and communication from their employers, which Grove plans to bring to the bargaining table in a few months, he said.

At the top of Grove’s mind is addressing proper notice regarding mandatory overtime, which hit airport workers who were forced to work extra hours amid staff shortages, layoffs and furloughs because of the pandemic.

“The language in the contract doesn’t stipulate a certain” notice, he said. “We want a timeline so they can’t pop us with mandatory overtime 40 minutes before we are supposed to leave.”

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