Last December, airport workers celebrated a state Supreme Court decision that would give them a $15 minimum wage.
Last December, airport workers celebrated a state Supreme Court decision that would give them a $15 minimum wage. Working Washington

Eric Cummins, 23, makes sure planes don't fall out of the sky. When I met Cummins on a SeaTac Airport picket line last year, he told me that was his job. As a lead ramper for Alaska Airlines contractor Menzies Aviation, he oversaw a crew of two to four rampers, depending on the day, who made sure that the weight of baggage and cargo was distributed evenly throughout the plane. At that time, he told me he was making $14.50 an hour. His rampers were making $12.

"I make almost $15, managing a plane that costs almost $200 million," Cummins told me. "I have hundreds of lives in my hands."

Last month, an investigation from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) revealed even more disturbing information about working conditions for people like Cummins. In response to worker complaints filed last summer, L&I found a total of 16 workplace safety violations—most of them considered serious—for Menzies workers at SeaTac Airport. The state slapped Menzies with $62,000 in fines, and another $7,000 for Alaska Airlines itself.

Here’s how L&I described the litany of occupational safety violations in a letter to SEIU Local 775:

Our inspection found: Employee exposure to ergonomic hazards, deficient ergonomic training, multiple powered industrial trucks were not maintained or inspected, unguarded nip points on baggage and fixed conveyors, belt loaders and lavatory trucks with absent or inadequate guard rail systems, inadequate personal protective equipment for workers conducting lavatory service for aircraft, a damaged extension cord to charge electric carts, safety meetings were not being held regularly, nor did safety meetings discuss all required topics, dirty bathrooms with fixtures not maintained and a dirty lunch room.

The state also discovered that Menzies workers have an “approximately four times higher injury rate than other employees in their risk class.”

Alaska Airlines, which maintains that its “top priority is the safety of its customers, employees and vendors,” has filed an appeal with L&I. Menzies, which has also filed an L&I appeal, released the following statement in response to the citations:

Many of the citations relate to airport infrastructure issues. Fully mitigating these issues would require a massive reconfiguration of the airport itself, and changes to baggage systems and ground handling equipment used not just at Sea-Tac, but throughout the U.S. aviation industry.

When I reached out to L&I to ask about whether Menzies’ characterization of the citations were true, L&I spokesperson Elaine Fischer told me that violations involving ergonomic hazards—the same type of violations found at Menzies and Alaska Airlines—are not very common. No other airlines or vendors at the airport have been cited for this kind of violation in the last five years, she said.

It certainly appears that the companies should have known better. Both Menzies and Alaska Airlines are also members of the OSHA Airline Alliance, which distributes informational materials about baggage handlers’ ergonomic hazards.

Menzies and Alaska Airlines now have until the end of the month to make the corrections identified by L&I. In the meantime, the Port of Seattle has opened up an additional investigation into Menzies' employees' working conditions.

Sergio Salinas, president of SEIU Local 6, warned port commissioners about the potential consequences of ongoing safety violations. “The [port] 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,” he said. “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.”