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At Work On Thanksgiving, Fort Lauderdale Airport Employees Highlight Fight Over Broward Wages

Sam Turken
Contracted workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have been protesting for a living wage increase in Broward County. Some of them had to work on Thanksgiving.

For Guildere Guerilus, Thanksgiving was like any other weekday.

The wheelchair attendant at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport clocked in at 3 a.m. before working eight hours. He then took a two-hour nap in his car at the airport before starting a second five-hour shift. He didn’t return home until later in the evening.

"Imagine how hard it is," Guerilus said. "I got to do it everyday. Otherwise I can’t provide for my kids, my family or myself."

Guerilus and other contracted airport employees say they could not afford to take off Thursday to spend Thanksgiving at home with their families. They make Broward's living wage—less than $14 per hour.

The Fort Lauderdale airport is expecting this year’s Thanksgiving season to be the busiest ever. And workers say they understand that people need to work over the holidays.

But they framed their need to work on Thanksgiving as a reflection of airport employees' broader struggle to earn enough to pay everyday bills. 

"My 14-year-old daughter tells me, ‘Mom, why you not take the days off to spend it with us? We need you, Mom,'" said Medghie Bissainthe, a customer service employee who also worked on Thursday. “I tell [her], ‘You know Mom cannot afford it.’”

Concessions, security, wheelchair and other airport workers have been calling on the county to increase its living wage at least to match that of Miami-Dade County. Broward’s wage, which covers thousands of contracted workers across the county, starts at $12.38 per hour for workers who receive health benefits and $13.98 for those who do not.

Miami-Dade’s is $12.99 per hour with health insurance and $16.15 per hour without.

According to a study by the Fort Lauderdale Airport commission, the lower wages in Broward have left nearly half of all contracted and subcontracted airport workers living at or below the federal poverty line.

The Broward County Commission has been considering a wage increase for the past year and discussed such a proposal at a meeting earlier in November. Some commissioners like Nan Rich and Dale Holness have advocated for the raises by rallying and protesting with workers. Still, past consideration of the issue has been fruitless.

“It’s way, way overdue,” Rich said at a Nov. 13 commission meeting where debate on the issue was postponed. “We have to care about the people in our community."

One sticking point has been health insurance. Workers and the union that represents them, 32 BJ SEIU, say the current wage policy requires companies to pay just $1.60 toward health insurance. Some airline and security contractors offer packages with costly deductibles, premiums and copayments, the union says.

But the Broward commission has yet to agree on the amount of the raise. Commissioner Steve Geller has said he's concerned the wage increase will interfere with existing county contracts with companies.

"Concessionaires have vested property rights once you sign a contract with us," Geller said at the Nov. 13 meeting, adding that he supports raising the wage for only new and renewal contracts. Workers, however, have called for any wage-increase to apply retroactively to everyone.  

WLRN's efforts to reach representatives of the contracted companies were unsuccessful on Friday morning.