Issued March 07, 2016
SEATAC, Wash.— In the aftermath of an investigation conducted at Sea-Tac International Airport, the Washington Department of Labor and Industries issued citations recently to Alaska Airlines and its ground-handling contractor, Menzies Aviation, for health and safety violations. Multiple inspections conducted in the course of the investigation found unsafe working conditions in Alaska Airlines and Menzies Aviation’s operations.
Inspectors found “Alaska Airlines did not provide safety devices, safeguards, work practices, processes and the means to make the workplace safe from hazards that were causing, or likely to cause, serious physical harm to Menzies ramp agent employees who handle cargo and passenger baggage for Alaska Airlines at SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington.”
The Department of Labor and Industries found “Menzies employees have an approximately four times higher injury rate than other employees in their risk class.” Menzies was fined $62,000 for 16 violations of state workplace health and safety laws.
“When we go to work, we leave families behind that not only rely on us to put food on the table, but also expect us to return home safely at the end of our shifts,” said Socrates Bravo, a ramp agent who has worked for Menzies Aviation for more than four years. “But the vehicles and other equipment we use are often poorly maintained and it has led to injuries. This should not be happening anywhere, much less on public property.”
“Unsafe and unhealthy conditions for SeaTac workers has been a concern for our communities for many years,” said Claudia Alexandra Paras, deputy director at Puget Sound Sage. “People employed by airline contractors have been put at risk where work is often performed behind secured areas and hidden from public view. We have to continuously bring these issues to public light because when workers are not safe on the job, everyone is affected, including our families, community and the public.”
Menzies employees filed a complaint with the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health last summer alleging unsafe vehicles and other ground service equipment “with malfunctioning or deficient engines, brakes, gears, steering, electrical systems and tires, and other safety violations.” The workers requested a fleetwide review of all ground service equipment used in the company’s operations at Sea-Tac.
In its investigation, the agency found that Menzies “did not ensure powered industrial trucks, including their baggage cart trailers were in safe working condition.”
“A safe work environment is not optional,” said Darius Harris who handles baggage for Menzies. “Alaska Airlines and Menzies have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace for all of us. Given the critical nature of the service that we provide, it is unacceptable that we have to deal with brake failures, dangerously worn tires, stalling engines and other unsafe conditions.”
The Department of Labor and Industry also has opened an investigation of the Port of Seattle. Results of that investigation are still pending.
“Serious measures have to be put in place immediately to prevent this situation from further deteriorating,” said Sergio Salinas, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 6. “The commissioners need to be mindful of the fact that last year a jury assessed $10 million judgment against the Port in a case filed by a contract worker tragically paralyzed in a ramp accident at Sea-Tac. The airport’s planned expansion with new gates and ramp construction is only going to add to congestion. Putting these projects on pause to give the Port and the airlines time to consider how to make an equal investment in workplace safety is a good place to start.”
Alaska is the dominant carrier at Sea-Tac; together with Alaska Air’s regional carrier Horizon Air, Alaska Air handles just over 50 percent of passenger enplanements at the airport.
Menzies Aviation is a global company that provides baggage handling, cargo and cargo forwarding services to airline clients, including Alaska Airlines, at more than a dozen major U.S. airports.
Alaska Airlines and Menzies Aviation have recently come under scrutiny for workplace safety lapses that have put both employees and passengers at risk.
Alaska Airlines made headlines across the country in April 2015 when one of its flights was forced to make an emergency landing at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after passengers heard banging and screams from a ramp agent who was trapped in the plane’s cargo hold. Alaska reported the ramp worker, who was not injured, told officials he had fallen asleep in the cargo hold and did not wake up until after takeoff.
Alaska Airlines and its contractor were issued citations in 2013 for multiple serious health and safety violations for failing to protect staff from exposure to corrosive cleaning chemicals, caustic jet fuel, blood-borne pathogens, and body fluids including vomit, urine, feces and blood.
Menzies’ safety record came under intense scrutiny following a fatal accident at LAX last year that resulted in the death of Menzies ramp worker Cesar Valenzuela when he was thrown from his tug and pinned under one of the tug’s tires. The vehicle did not have seat belts.
Menzies also handles Alaska’s ramp operations at Portland International Airport. A Portland, Ore., jury found in favor of Menzies Aviation’s employees who claimed they had been fired after filing a safety complaint that triggered a state inspection; the jury awarded the workers $300,000 in May 2012.
Contract workers at airports around the country face a serious crisis created and maintained by an aviation industry that continues to cut wages and quality of service by outsourcing jobs to often irresponsible contractors. This low-road business model has resulted in a system where bottom-feeder contractors have taken over the market at the expense of the hardworking men and women who care for hundreds of millions of passengers each year. As a result, airports have become a locus of low-wages, exploitation, unfairness and inequality instead of economic drivers and generators of good jobs.
Baggage handlers and ramp workers employed by Menzies Aviation at Sea-Tac went on strike last September, and again last month, to protest unfair labor practices—including intimidation, threats, and harassment— by their employer when workers advocate for better wages and a safe workplace.
Around the country, contract airport workers are coming together in Airport Workers United, a movement of workers and their allies, raising their voices for $15 and union rights to make our airports safe and secure for passengers, employees and our communities. By sticking together, speaking out for change, and going on strike, these workers have won wage increases in Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, N.J., Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. More than 70,000 workers nationwide have either received wage increases or other improvements, including healthcare, paid sick leave and worker retention policies as a result of the campaign.