Op-Ed: Airlines: Stop depriving Black, brown and immigrant workers healthcare

File photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS


Essential workers have held our borough – and our country – together during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet thousands of frontline workers in our community, many of whom are Black or Brown, can’t afford to go to a doctor when they are sick. And cases are only going up.

There are stark racial disparities in how the pandemic has hurt our communities. Across the country, Black and Brown people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 and three times more likely to be infected by the virus.

Affordable health care for frontline workers is an important racial justice issue. Black workers are more likely to be in jobs deemed essential during the pandemic, but also 60 percent more likely than white workers to lack adequate health insurance.

One step we can take to toward racial justice is to give essential workers in our borough access to adequate health care. The Healthy Terminals Act (S6266/A8142), a bill that has already passed both the New York State Assembly and Senate, would do just that for 25,000 mostly Black, Brown and immigrant workers at John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia airports. The bill would help ensure that airport jobs are good jobs, and would keep workers and the public safe by putting affordable health care within reach for airport workers.

A workforce, composed in its majority by people of color, at crucial transportation hubs that generate $72.4 billion in economic activity shouldn’t have to forgo medical care because their employers’ health plans can provoke a financial crisis for workers. The Healthy Terminals Act would put subcontracted airport workers on a path to earning at least $4.54 in compensation that can be used to pay for desperately needed health care.

Workers won significant wage increases to $19 per hour by 2023. That’s good, but for many airport workers it means they are no longer eligible for Medicare and/or Medicaid. Without additional compensation, employer health care plans are too expensive for most. As the pandemic ravages our city, airport workers continue to show up and to keep our airports clean and safe.

The airlines and their lobby erroneously say we can’t afford to help airport workers get the healthcare they need. But the HTA only costs the airlines 0.41 percent of the airlines’ $50 billion bailout. The airline industry is on the backs of these workers whose deep pockets call healthcare for Black and Brown people during a pandemic and racial justice movement “unaffordable.” Their endeavor to deny healthcare to frontline, essential workers is undisguised. It’s not a good look.

The airline industry has a long path to recovery. But that recovery won’t happen unless workers are healthy and have access to healthcare. Both airport workers and the public must be confident in the safety of airports. In fact, experts have identified pandemic-proofing airports as a crucial step in economic recovery. Workers with affordable health insurance are more likely to seek medical attention, which could help prevent more outbreaks of COVID-19 at the airports.

No airport is pandemic proof when its workers can’t afford to see a doctor. And no economic recovery is just when Black and Brown lives are considered expendable during a pandemic.

The Healthy Terminals Act would make a difference for thousands of essential workers who keep the doors open at Queens airports. And it would make a difference for a worker and racial-justice led economic recovery for our entire city.

Donovan Richards is the Council Member for the 31st District of the New York City Council and Queens borough president-elect.

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