If you eat at a restaurant, it's obvious you won't just pay the price of your meal. Tipping is not just customary, it is understood to be part of a server's take-home pay.
It is not so obvious, however, that wheelchair attendants at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are paid the very same way.
Deborah, who asked us not to use her real name, has pushed passengers to and from airplanes for two years now. She makes just $5.50 an hour, well below Florida’s regular minimum wage of $7.93.
She is supposed to be making up for her lower pay though tips. She gets to the airport early and works off the clock to see if she can earn a little extra. She says she often doesn't. Deborah doesn't get any benefits and struggles to juggle all her expenses.
“It’s tough,” says Deborah. “I had to move back home with my step-mom — my daughter and I — because she’s in college, she’s not working. It’s not easy."
Most of the people who were asked on a recent Wednesday at the airport didn't know they were supposed to tip wheelchair attendants like Deborah.
Deborah’s employers prohibit her from asking patrons tip. There is not even a sign or badge saying "tipping is suggested, but not required." A sign like that wouldn’t even be accurate since, in a way, it is required. But termination is a real possibility for anyone who is caught negotiating with patrons.
And when a patron does know to tip, it’s often not a lot. The attendants' joke is: if someone says they are a good tipper, the wheelchair attendant is walking away with only a dollar or two.
“I’ve gotten 75 cents before,” says Deborah. “[The patron] said ‘please take it, go buy yourself a can of soda.’”
The obvious solution: heighten awareness about the need to tip wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and skycaps, people who are supposed to be making tips and don’t.
But Helene O’Brien disagrees with that route. She is district director in Florida for the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which is helping to represent airline workers.
“A lot of folks on disability, they don’t have the money to tip,” says O’Brien. “And in some ways… it feels like just another pressure on the poor passenger, who’s first paying for bags. You know you’re asked to pay for everything.”
To her, the solution is in the Broward County living wage ordinance.
Starting January of 2013, the ordinance set an $11.46 minimum wage for county employees and those who do work for the county through contractors. If a worker doesn’t get benefits, the hourly wage goes up to $12.95.
“There’s been a huge loophole around the airport,” explains O’Brien, even though the airport is a county-owned building.
Workers who push wheelchairs or carry baggage for the airlines work for companies with contracts with the airlines, not the county. Therefore, they can be paid as little as $4.91 an hour for "tipped" positions.
None of the airlines we contacted were willing comment about a potential increase.
O’Brien and the union have been working for almost two years to get a wage increase for workers at the airport. After a lot of push back from the airlines, there is some movement from the commission. A full-on wage increase for the sub-contractors, though, is far off.