11/03/2013 06:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Our Airports Shouldn't Be the Home of Low Road Employers

Juan Chapman and his wife and their teenage daughter live on the $8 an hour he earns as a security officer for Aviation Safeguard at LaGuardia Airport. His pay comes to less than $300 a week, with no sick days or health benefits. "We avoid eating out as much as possible," says Chapman, who lives in the East Bronx.

Juana Walker, 50, of Bushwick, Brooklyn, a cleaner for Airway in Terminal 8 at JFK, got a 56-cent-an-hour raise in September to $9.06. The bad news, she says, is that she no longer qualifies for public assistance "because they claim I am making too much...That raise knocked me off food stamps and I'm behind on my rent."

Diana Smith, 56, has worked for seven months as a terminal cleaner for Airway at JFK Airport's Terminal 8. She makes $7.90 an hour. Because of her low income, Smith has a HUD Section 8 apartment in Brooklyn for $261 a month. She is behind on her rent and struggles to make ends meet. "You work a whole week and you don't even bring home $300," she says.

They are different people in diverse situations. What they have in common is that they work for airport contractors in jobs that pay poverty wages.

Like the fast food workers and the "carwasheros," they struggle to survive. Many skip meals, wear hand-me-down clothes and rely on public assistance to supplement their skimpy earnings.

While the fast food workers have made headlines around the world and workers at six New York City car washes have joined the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union and have won good contracts, the plight of the men and women who clean our planes and safeguard our airports has largely flown under the radar.

Contractors hired by airlines - like Air Serv, Primeflight and Aviation Safeguard -- pay far less than workers doing the same jobs under the Port Authority. Not only is this double standard unfair, it hurts those who can least afford it.

A report from the Women of Color Policy Network found that the median hourly wage for these workers is $8 - or $16,640 a year - more than 25% below the federal poverty threshold.

Not only do those poverty wages affect the workers, the spillover effect to our communities is devastating.

The report found that most passenger service workers live within five miles of the airports, in places like Mott Haven and Jackson Heights near La Guardia Airport; Canarsie, and East New York near JFK and the high-poverty South and Central wards around Newark International Airport.

The report, and U.S. Census data show airport workers in these communities - our communities - live in poverty; 21% all told and up to 40% in Mott Haven. Most do not have health insurance or other benefits.

This cannot continue.

The hard-working men and women who keep our airports safe and clean deserve a fair wage and the right to join a good union. That will help get them into the middle class, grow the economy and keep New York safe.

People all across the New York Metropolitan Area are coming together to urge contractors like Air Serv, Prime Flight and Aviation Safeguard to do the right thing and pay these dedicated people a decent wage with benefits. Worker meetings, press conferences and airport actions are planned for November to call attention to the plight of these dedicated men and women.

If the contractors refuse to treat their employees fairly, we urge the Port Authority, which pays its employees fair wages, to make sure there is a base level of standards at the airports.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but it's also fair and just.