Just this week, we announced some promising news: Visitors are coming back to Washington, DC. After tourism plummeted to only 13 million visitors in 2020, last year, we welcomed 19 million people from across the nation and around the world to our city. In 2021, we spread the word that DC is open, and people heard us. Now, the work continues to get back to pre-pandemic tourism levels – to get back to the nearly 25 million visitors who came to DC in 2019 and generated over $8 billion for the local economy and supported nearly 80,000 jobs.

We know that our local airports will play a critical role in helping us reach our tourism goals. While people come to DC for our museums and monuments, our sporting events and festivals, our music and theater – for the culture and history that makes us the greatest city in the world – we know that often times, a visitor’s first and last impression of our city and region is made at the airport. 

By now, we have all heard the stories of travelers doing their best to get to and from destinations world-wide – delayed and cancelled flights, lost and abandoned luggage, nights spent sleeping at packed gates. And while there was so much out of our control in 2020, even in 2021, today, we know how to get our airports back on track – and it starts with treating workers right.  

It has been five years since the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) commendably passed its first living wage, which helped contracted workers at Reagan National Airport (DCA) and Dulles International Airport better support themselves and their families. Today, though, too many of those same workers are still without paid sick leave or employer-paid health care – even after all the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19.

In fact, many contracted airline service workers, who are critical to the functioning of DCA and Dulles, report that they believe that a lack of paid sick leave and employer-paid health care are leading to staff shortages that cause and exacerbate cancellations and chaotic airport environments.

And it is not just about making our airports function better – this is about taking care of the people who take care of us. Because many contracted workers cannot afford their employers’ expensive health care, they may go without seeing a doctor or without medicine they need to be healthy. Also, most of these workers cannot afford to miss pay when they are sick and often must come to work sick, which puts the health and safety of the traveling public at risk. At 71, not only can Paul Blair not afford to retire from his job as a terminal cleaner, he also can’t afford to miss work. “If I got hit by a car or a stray bullet, I’d tell the ambulance to take me to work,” Paul said. “Otherwise, I won’t have a job when I come back.” 

In an already tight labor market, we urge the MWAA to improve pay and benefits for contracted workers so that workers can take care of themselves and so that our airports can attract and retain a highly qualified workforce. Just as MWAA enacted a policy requiring contractors to provide a living wage for wheelchair assistants, cabin cleaners, and baggage handlers, MWAA can enact a similar policy requiring contractors to provide these workers with critical paid sick leave and health care benefits.

A dozen airports already have, or are soon putting in place, requirements for health care or other supplemental benefits. In July, for example, a prevailing wage law went into effect at Philadelphia International Airport that mandates $4.80 in health care benefits and a minimum of 11 days of paid holidays or time off. The airport authorities who bring visitors into our Nation’s Capital should join this growing list.

Let’s celebrate Labor Day by acknowledging the obvious – in order to take care of others, workers must first be able to take care of themselves.  

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