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SEIU raises concerns, questions on Logan expansion

Jule Pattison-Gordon
SEIU raises concerns, questions on Logan expansion
SEIU 32BJ District 615 Leader Dan Nicolai presented concerns at Wednesday's Massport board meeting.

Boston is growing and the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan airport, wants its air services to grow with it. Among current plans: expanding Terminal E to pave the way for acquiring sizeable new planes.

To achieve this and other projects, Massport plans to issue bonds worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and members of the Service Employees International Union are asking who will shoulder the cost of paying back this debt.

To help finance the Terminal E expansion as well as improvements to Terminal B, Massport may issue up to $300 million in bonds, according to a public hearing notice. Among the concerns SEIU members voiced at the board meeting are that some planned enhancements primarily would serve first class and higher-paying customers, but the port authority may choose to raise revenue from of all customers to help repay the costs.

Fears were not allayed at the bond meeting two days later, according to SEIU members who attended.

The public comment period ended at the close of Friday’s bond hearing, according to Frank Soults, senior communications associate of SEIU 32 BJ. SEIU members sought an extension until more information on financing and staffing are released and the public has a chance to respond to them.

The governor will be asked to sign approval for the bond, and the Massport board will vote on whether to approve it at a meeting on June 23, SEIU members said.

Terminal E plans

Massport’s expects Logan to serve three Airbus A380s, the largest commercial aircraft available. Described as “superjumbo jets” in the port authority’s project environmental assessment, these double-decker planes can carry up to 853 passengers. They would increase capacity on international commercial flights to and from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Also anticipated: one B747-8, the longest passenger aircraft in the world. This, too, features multiple levels for passengers, according to the environmental report.

The planes are so large that Massport will need to enhance Terminal E in order to allow them to be used safely and efficiently. Improvements include jet-bridge connections for simultaneous boarding of passengers to the planes’ multiple levels, expanding and stabilizing runway and turning areas to accommodate the larger aircraft and expanding interior holding areas to seat the increased number of passengers.

Subsidizing elite flyers?

With the large planes able to carry more people, Massport’s board intends to create three new seating rooms for waiting passengers. Separate airline clubs for premium passengers would be built above each, with their own gate access.

SEIU members highlighted that part of the plan, saying that if funding for this comes from raising prices on all customers, it will be an instance of the many paying for the rich few.

Massport does not receive support from state taxes and in the past has raised revenue in part through passenger facility charges levied on all tickets.

“They’d be underwriting wealthy patrons,” Soults told the Banner after last Wednesday’s meeting.

Other ways Massport has raised revenue include terminal rents and landing fees.

By Wednesday, the agency had not released plans for how it would repay the $300 million bond for funding the projects, although the public comment period was scheduled to end last Friday.

In Friday’s public bond meeting, which lasted 15 minutes, Massport officials said that $165 million in bonds would be issued to support Terminal E projects and $25 million for Terminal B, and that the total bond package may be as much as $300 million, recounted Soults, who attended. It was not clear what the rest of the funds would go to underwrite. Massport officials said that revenue to repay the bonds would be generated solely through raising airline rates and charges, Soults said.

Last Wednesday, Soults and SEIU 32BJ District 615 Leader Dan Nicolai said that SEIU does not necessarily oppose the project, but wants greater transparency on the plan.

“Logan is unquestionably crucial for the economic vitality of Boston,” Nicolai said at the meeting.

Massport was unable to answer questions by press deadlines on how bonds would be repaid, where the funds would go, and whether the agency would increase the benefits and minimum wage requirements for subcontractors providing staffing for the new facilities.

Employment conditions

The majority of airport workers — those who perform tasks such as cleaning planes, offering wheel chair service and acting as baggage attendants — are subcontracted, according to Soults. Those employed this way typically receive low pay and no benefits, and often rely on public services to survive, he said.

SEIU members are concerned that as Logan hires new workers to handle its added capacity, the number of low-quality jobs could expand as well. Not only would this reflect a missed opportunity to negotiate jobs that promise higher quality of life, but it also could burden taxpayers if means an increase in the number of people on public services, Soult and Nicolai said.

“If more people are employed here that’s good in some sense, but it’s going to create tremendous financial impact because of the public assistance that will be needed for people to live,” Nicolai said at Wednesday’s meeting, adding that the majority of airport workers are use public health care and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Two workers spoke at the meeting, presenting two pictures of working conditions.

Gimiraldo Mendoza is part of a union and makes $17 per hour on the night shift at Terminal B. He receives pay for working overtime and holidays, which raised his annual wages last year from $31,000 to about $37,000, he said at the meeting. Mendoza said he sees friends doing similar work, but struggling without these protections.

Jonathan Cornier is one of those coworkers. He works as a care assistant for customers in wheelchairs and said he relies on food stamps, lives in public housing and pays for his own health care. He has injured both his hands but cannot afford to lose work hours in recovery, he said. Airport service workers currently make a minimum of $11 per hour.

“I do not make enough to survive,” Cornier said, adding that the subcontractors he works for do not allow employees enough hours to be more than part-time.

Those who testified asked that Massport make providing higher pay and employee benefits a requirement for employers seeking to do business with them.

“You guys own the airport,” Cornier told board members. “You guys can say, ‘Well you can’t work here, sorry [to the subcontractors].”

“Our view is this development should go hand-in-hand with higher standards for employees at the airport,” Nicolai stated.