Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday September 7th, 2016, 1:10pm

O'Hare Contract Workers Allege 'Rampant Wage Theft' (UPDATED)

Contract workers at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport are allegedly facing "rampant wage theft," and they are calling on the city and state to investigate the issue.

O'Hare workers and SEIU* Local 1 officials discussed the wage theft allegations Wednesday morning and announced filings of wage theft complaints with the Illinois Labor Department and Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

The charges include 60 Chicago minimum wage ordinance violations and 20 Illinois Labor Department violations, according to the union. 

At issue are security officers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants and other workers who are employed by O'Hare contractors, including Universal Security, Prospect Airport Services, and Scrub, Inc. The union recently conducted a wage theft survey of about 300 contracted O'Hare workers, finding that they collectively lost $1 million in wages last year.

"This wage theft includes everything from failing to make up the difference for tipped employees, whose tips leave them short of the city's minimum wage, to failing to pay employees who work through their lunch breaks or work before and after their regular shift," said SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff. 

"These workers are already struggling to get by on minimum wage, and to steal their wages is wrong," he added.

Olivia Pac is an O'Hare contract worker. 

"Prospect has me do three jobs a day: pushing wheelchairs, escorting children on and off flights and security work," she said of her employer company. 

Airport wheelchair attendants are tipped employees, and Pac claims that her employer does not adjust her wages when she "moves from wheelchair pushing to security work."

"Sometimes when I'm doing security work, I'm making wheelchair attendant wages," she said. "That is about a $6 difference."

Pac was one of three non-unionized contract O'Hare workers who discussed their alleged wage theft experiences and demanded "dignity and respect" from their employers. 

Balanoff commended the workers for speaking out, noting that O'Hare contract workers have previously faced employer retaliation for raising concerns about their work conditions. 

O'Hare workers are organizing as part of the SEIU-backed Airport Workers United campaign. Workers with the nationwide campaign want a $15 minimum wage and union recognition.

After an unfair labor practice strike in March, at least two contracted O'Hare security officers were fired for speaking to the media about their concerns.

"I will say to those contractors, 'You can retaliate all you want. Local 1 is standing behind these workers,'" Balanoff said. "We are gonna do everything we can to make sure that work is rewarded and honored as much as wealth is."

SEIU Local 1 recently pushed for an advisory referendum about creating an Independent Airport Authority in Chicago, but the question was crowded off the November ballot. The proposed agency would have authority over contracts and operations at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway International Airports. 

Chicago's Aviation Department opposed the SEIU-backed ballot question, which was thwarted by mayoral allies at the July City Council meeting. 

O'Hare workers, meanwhile, saw support today from the chairs of the City Council's Black and Latino caucuses and several other aldermen.

"O'Hare cannot be a world-class airport if it's not treating its workers with dignity and respect," said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th). "And so I pose the question: who then is overseeing O'Hare Airport? Who is regulating O'Hare Airport? Who is working to ensure that O'Hare Airport is a place that treats its workers with dignity and respect? It appears that our city has fallen short of that task. But where our city has failed, workers are fighting back."

Balanoff said the responsibility of cracking down on alleged wage theft at O'Hare and elsewhere in the state largely falls on the Illinois Department of Labor.

"They need to be addressing that by going out there about wage theft," the union leader said. "This is just a little tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of workers at O'Hare Airport who are getting wages stolen from them, and there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of workers in the state who are getting wages stolen from them."

The Illinois Labor Department and the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection did not immediately return requests for comment on this story. 

UPDATE (2:12 p.m.): The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection provided Progress Illinois with the following statement:

BACP is committed to enforcing the minimum wage ordinance; those who feel they are not being compensated the legal minimum wage in the City Of Chicago are encouraged to file a complaint with BACP so that the department can launch an investigation. We received several complaints from SEIU today and will begin a thorough investigation of each one.

Mayor Emanuel championed the minimum wage ordinance precisely to ensure Chicagoans aren't cheated out of their hard earned money. The minimum wage in the City Of Chicago is currently $10.50 and $5.95 for tipped employees.

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

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