Minimum wage hikes for NY-area airport workers hit snag

Three months after the authority that runs New York-area airports approved a series of wage hikes for airport workers that would reach $19 per hour by 2023, concerns raised by employers have delayed the implementation of the increases.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey voted Thursday to extend the public comment period for 30 days to consider those concerns, which apparently weren't anticipated in March when the board approved the plan.

The issues include whether benefits can be counted in wage calculations; whether smaller businesses can pay less; whether retail businesses at the airports will still have to abide by "street pricing" policies that set maximum limits on what they can charge, and whether employers can take "tip credits" against the wage hikes for employees who receive tips.

Raising the minimum wage could force businesses to lay off workers and result in "many popular branded and independent restaurants not renewing their lease agreements with the Port Authority," according to a comment from a retailer quoted in a memo from Huntley Lawrence, the Port Authority's director of aviation.

The Port Authority approved the phased-in hikes in March, and the first increases were to have been put into effect in September. Now, the board hopes to vote on the matter again in September, assuming the employers' issues can be resolved.

Airport workers currently make about $10.45 per hour. Dozens of them attended Thursday's meeting, and expressed anger that the increases, which have been debated since 2014, would be delayed again.

"Even though I work for an airline that makes billions, I can't save up for a vacation," Lindell Lawrence, a driver at Newark Liberty International Airport, told board members. "We need you to pass this policy now, and we can't wait any longer."

Port Authority Chairman Kevin O'Toole said the employers' issues were "significant, they're intellectual arguments that were brought our way that really have to be dissected and researched."

Nationwide, minimum wage increases have often been followed by legal or legislative actions opposing them. In some cases, state legislatures have passed laws to pre-empt cities or counties from implementing wage hikes.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, both Democrats, support the increases for airport workers.

O'Toole said a legal challenge still could result.

"It'd be silly to think that it's not a possibility; it clearly is," he said. "Either way, the proposal we're going to stand behind is going to be vetted, it's going to have a solid foundation and one that can undergo any type of public scrutiny, whether it be political, public policy or judicial, and one we know can stand on its own."