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Orlando airport contract workers get Democratic support

The union organizing an effort to raise wages and benefits for thousands of contract workers at the Orlando International Airport is becoming a symbol of Democrats’ living wage push in Florida.

On Tuesday, several dozen workers, some making as little as $5.23 an hour working for airport contractors, declared the airport to be a sweatshop.

They received full-throated backing from Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Chris King, as well as U.S. Rep Darren Soto, state Sen. Victor Torres, and state Rep. Amy Mercado.

The Service Employees International Union, together with Orlando Local 32BJ, are trying to organize contractor employees at the airport, with the goal of $15 an hour wages and benefits, as has been done at other airports.

All summer long, the union highlighted the low wages paid to airport workers who carry bags, push wheelchairs, greet visitors and other jobs, while working for contract companies hired by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

The minimum wage at the airport does not include tips those employees may receive, but the employees said tips are unreliable (and frequently nonexistent).

On Wednesday, the union released findings of a study of wages at the Orlando airport; 78 percent of employees make less than $20,000 a year, with 13 percent making less than $12,000 a year. The study highlighted efforts at other airports, including at Fort Lauderdale, to raise wages universally.

“This airport that is the gateway to the ‘happiest place on Earth’ is run like a sweatshop,” declared Sheyla Ascencios, political director for the SEIU in Orlando.

“We are committed, [Tallahassee] Mayor Andrew Gillum and myself to righting this wrong and making this airport work like it should,” King declared in response, citing his running mate, gubernatorial candidate Gillum.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority put out a statement Wednesday that the airport authority itself employees only 850 of the 21,000 or so who work at the airport, and that the rest are employed by private companies or federal agencies. GOAA declared it pays its direct employees at least federal minimum wage.

At a separate news conference announcing the airport received a JD Power award as the top-ranked major airport in the country, GOAA Board Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said he was asking for an independent review of the union’s study and would discuss it at the October board meeting.

But Kruppenbacher expressed skepticism about the report, cautioning that he had heard from “a number of employees” that they would rather have the low wages plus tips than a $15 an hour minimum wage and no tips.

King, Soto, Torres, and Mercado called for changes soon, and even suggested that if the current GOAA board won’t do it, an election of Gillum and King would bring a new board that would.

“It’s a disgrace,” Mercado said. “But I tell you what; it is a good time to come to the table and negotiate.”

Said Torres: “Guess what: You can change the board with a new government.”

For them, the Orlando airport symbolizes the Democrats’ call for mandated living wages. King and Soto cited the deal struck two weeks ago between Walt Disney World and its unions to raise the minimum wage there over time to $15 an hour.

“Orlando is not unique, but it is a microcosm of a very large problem in Florida, which, for too long, we have not cared for, we have not invested in, we have not built a fair economy that works for all of our families,” King said. “It’s why Mayor Andrew Gillum and I will be fighting for a living wage and a $15 an hour minimum wage in the state of Florida.”

The call reflects the stark difference in the economic theories on the table in the Nov. 6 election, where Gillum and King face Republican nominees U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and state Rep. Jeanette Nunez; Soto is facing Wayne Liebnitzky, and Mercado faces George Chandler, who argues that a free economy lets businesses prosper, and wages would rise naturally as a result.

Democrats say they see a thriving economy at Orlando airport, but with stagnant low wages.

“No one in this nation should work 40 hours a week or more and live in poverty,” Soto said. “It also good for the economy as well as being the right thing to do. That deal for Disney pumps another billion into our Central Florida economy over the next four years. When Central Floridians have more money than just to pay their bills, small businesses win, everybody wins.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at

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