Tens of thousands of employees at Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports currently struggle to afford the high-cost premiums, copays and deductibles of health insurance plans offered by their employers, a predicament that often leaves them making the precarious decision to forego healthcare.
Those risks are particularly apparent when a global health scare like COVID-19 hits, and public-facing employees like wheelchair attendants, security, cleaners and passenger service representatives at some of the world’s most heavily trafficked airports don’t have coverage.
“New York is a gateway for the entire world,” said State Senator John Liu during a press conference last Thursday, “and we need to do everything we can to keep those workers safe.”
Liu has been a vocal supporter and co-sponsor for HTA, which was first introduced in the legislature by State Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman.
The bill would require employers at New York airports to compensate workers, including sub-contracted passenger service workers, with a benefits supplement that could be used to acquire insurance.
Similar legislation is being discussed by lawmakers in New Jersey.
Last week’s conference came hours after it was revealed that a passenger on a JetBlue flight from JFK tested positive for the coronavirus after landing in Florida.
Liu was joined by both Biaggi and Hyndman, as well as other elected officials such as assemblywomen Aravella Simotas and Catalina Cruz, and members of 32BJ SEIU in calling attention to the issue amid the current pandemic.
“These workers are the frontline of this virus,” said Rob Hill, vice president of 32BJ, which represents nearly 10,000 of the estimated 40,000 uninsured airport employees. “And it just underscores the need for us to move this along.”
Hill pointed out that without health insurance, airport workers are unable to follow some of the most basic precautions recommended by various levels of government, like calling a doctor if they are feeling ill.
With only five paid sick days mandated by law, employees are forced between staying home and losing money or going to work and putting themselves and passengers in jeopardy.
“No worker should ever have to choose between healthcare and food,” said Biaggi. ““Healthcare is a basic human right, and I truly cannot believe that in a moment like the one we are in right now we even have to fight to pass the HTA.”
As it stands, the HTA is in committee in both the State Senate and Assembly, with a long list of co-sponsors in both bodies.
Councilman Justin Brannan said on Thursday that he is sponsoring a resolution in the City Council to support the bill. Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents the district that is home to LaGuardia Airport, also spoke in support of the legislation.
The passage of HTA will likely not affect the current chaos induced by the coronavirus outbreak, and Hill said the union is holding up-to-date trainings for airport employees to inform them on proper protocols, in addition to trying to minimize the number of layoffs and hour cuts that may occur as international and domestic travel is restricted.
“If we haven't fixed this by the next time something like this happens,” he said, “shame on us.”