Frank Mena of Swissport says his company can't survive on the uneven playing field at Miami International Airport
Frank Mena of Swissport says his company can't survive on the uneven playing field at Miami International Airport
Steve Satterwhite

By the Hour

In May 1999 the Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously approved a "living wage" ordinance. Laws like it are not common around the nation, and for workers in South Florida, where many businesses thrive on the backs of abysmally paid immigrants, it is truly significant. The ordinance fixes the minimum wage for all county employees at $8.76 per hour plus health benefits, or $9.81 without benefits -- considerably higher than the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. It also mandates annual cost-of-living increases.

Furthermore the law applies to the employees of all private businesses holding county contracts valued at more than $100,000. Even more impressive: The coalition of labor groups and social-service organizations that pushed for the ordinance encountered virtually no opposition from affected business interests.

County officials were unable to provide a figure for the value of contracts subject to the living-wage requirements, which are being phased in over three years. They also are uncertain how many individual workers are affected by the law, which covers a broad range of jobs, from food preparation to maintenance services.

Enforcement of the ordinance is handled by the county's procurement office, which has put in place a number of grievance and penalty provisions. By most accounts compliance has been good. But it's a different story at the county's Miami International Airport (MIA), where hundreds of workers now earning about six dollars per hour may never see their pay rise to the county minimum. Why not? Some private businesses with county contracts have so far managed to skirt the law. "We supported a living-wage ordinance," says Mario Colon, a veteran American Airlines employee and Transport Workers Union member. "Well, there's a lot of loopholes and most of the companies at the airport have not done anything in regard to [living wages]. Everything is just stuck, and frustration has been mounting for a long time."

More than two years after the passage of the ordinance, an increasingly heated debate is erupting over which airport contractors should be covered. County administrators so far are taking a narrow approach, one that living-wage advocates warn could result in several companies escaping the law. Compounding the problem, employers covered under the ordinance say they'll go out of business if their competitors aren't forced to pay by the same rules.

"If some of these companies have to participate and their competitors don't, it would create an uneven playing field and put those covered companies out of business, and open up the county to a lawsuit [from the covered companies]," argues Michael Ozegovich, chairman of the Living Wage Advisory Board, an appointed committee that monitors implementation of the law. "Unfortunately it's taking so long to put into effect, and a lot of responsible employers are being pushed out with heavy losses because they're being undercut by some of the [MIA] contractors who have no problem paying unlivable wages. We know [the living-wage ordinance] wasn't supposed to be limited to just a few [MIA] contractors; that makes no sense at all." Yet county administrators believe the law as it's written is indeed limited to a mere half-dozen companies doing business at the airport.

The living-wage ordinance took effect November 1999; applicable contracts negotiated after that date are required to budget for the living wage. Currently the ordinance specifically applies to "general aeronautical services permittees," commonly referred to as GASPs. General aeronautical services contractors receive a permit from the county and then compete among themselves to provide cargo handling, maintenance and grounds cleaning, aircraft fueling, airplane parking and moving, and other support services to airlines.

According to the County Attorney's Office, only six companies currently operate at the airport as GASPs. But in fact several other contractors are performing general aeronautical services as well. "Some air carriers have set up subsidiary companies and are competing [with GASPs] right now," asserts Michael Garcia, a Transport Workers Union official in Miami and an advisory board member. "Some companies are trying to do everything they can to get out of paying." Garcia, Ozegovich, and other board members cite as one example Prime Cargo Services, which is a subsidiary of LanChile airline. "This is a foreign carrier," says Ozegovich, a long-time AFL-CIO official, "trying to get around federal and county law in order to compete at a predatory level."

County officials say the airport contracts held by the six GASPs will expire in October 2002; the living-wage minimums will then take effect. But what about the contracts under which other companies are providing support services at the airport? "That's the issue," says Ozegovich. "We were told all the contracts came up for renewal in three years. We were told the law would be evenly applied by the county across the line. Now we find out there are a lot more companies out there, and we don't know when their contracts are up. We have a problem with that."

Thus at the most recent meeting of the Living Wage Advisory Board, held June 18, members debated how to bring non-GASP companies under the ordinance. But Assistant County Attorney Eric Rodriguez wasn't sure that could be legally justified. "GASP is well-defined," observes Rodriguez, who was involved with the writing of the living-wage ordinance and now lends guidance on its implementation. "Up to now it seemed to me the ordinance says GASPs appear to be some five or six [companies] who have those specifically designated permits. But I'm looking into what exactly that means. I'm willing to change my position."

Three months ago representatives of the advisory board went before the county commission to ask that the ordinance be amended to include all non-GASP companies. The commission sent the matter back to Commissioner Natacha Seijas, the measure's sponsor. "We recognize the fact there are apparently these competitors who slipped in under different authorizations like airline subcontractors," says Seijas's chief of staff Terry Murphy, who also has played a key role in shaping and shepherding the ordinance. "We're addressing it now because any kind of competitive-bidding process [on new or renewed contracts] can take nine months to a year."

Murphy believes the ordinance can be corrected without being formally amended, a position shared by at least some Living Wage Advisory Board members. Amending the law would require approval of the county commission and could attract strong opposition this time around. Asserts board member Frank Mena, regional vice president of Swissport USA, a contractor at MIA and a general aeronautical services permittee: "Anytime you have to go back to rectify a wrong, and this is a wrong, you have to go back into the commission and open it back up, which would be setting it up to fail."

Mena says his company began a process of increasing wages and benefits shortly after the ordinance passed. "But as a result the losses are huge," he reports. "Our health-insurance costs have gone up 56 percent in the last two years. We were forced to downsize our ramp operation last year." Mena's competitors are still paying in the six-dollar-per-hour range. While some will be forced to institute the living wage next year, others won't -- unless the county determines they're covered by the ordinance. If he continues to be faced with competitors who don't have the expense of paying a living wage, Mena doesn't know how much longer Swissport can keep its operations at MIA. "It's such a cutthroat environment here," he says. "You have to make a dollar for your shareholders, and if you try to take care of your employees, which you have to do, you become uncompetitive. We always thought there was light at the end of the tunnel, but Lord have mercy, it's not getting any better."


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