There are people who push wheelchairs for a living. They work at airports. I don’t know if they have an official job title. I call them pushers.
They also lug disabled folks on and off aircrafts. When a passenger like me comes along, the pushers show up wearing their spiffy vests. When I fly, I have to give up my motorized wheelchair at the gate so it can be stored with the luggage. The pushers lift me out of my wheelchair and onto this thing called an aisle chair, which is essentially a hand truck with a seat. They strap me in thoroughly, tote me down the aisle and then lift me into my seat on the plane.
In the cramped quarters of a plane, it takes three pushers to successfully pull off this feat. And then I am expected to tip them all—otherwise, the next time I need them to lift me they might collapse from malnutrition because they can’t afford to buy groceries.
Three years ago, some pushers were arrested when they protested about their crappy wages by blocking the road outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. They complained that they were only paid $7.25 an hour with no benefits.
The pushers who assist me in Chicago are employed by a private contractor which considers them to be tipped employees. Thus their minimum wage is only $5.95 an hour. The contractor is supposed to make up the difference when their tips don’t bring them up to the local minimum wage of $11 per hour. But last year, Service Employees International Union Local 1, which seeks to represent the pushers, filed wage theft complaints with the city and state alleging that the contractor often reneged on that obligation.
It’s ridiculous that the pushers work for tips. It’s not like they are restaurant servers and if they want to make bigger tips they can try to get a job at some ooh-la-la French bistro. The pushers have to assist whomever they’re assigned to and hope for the best.
In July, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed an ordinance mandating that airline contractors and subcontractors pay their non-tipped employees no less than $13.45 an hour beginning July 1, 2018, with annual cost-of-living increases. He didn’t do it because he’s a sweetheart. He did it because progressives on the city council were poised to push through a tougher living wage ordinance over his objections.
Labor leaders cheered the action but it won’t help the pushers much. All the ordinance does for workers receiving gratuities is raise their minimum wage to $6.95. So the pushers will still be hustling for tips, only slightly less.
And we all know that capitalism is like a salamander. When it loses a limb, it grows it right back. So once this gratuity loophole catches on, maybe everybody who works at airports will work for tips. When flight attendants bid us good day as we exit the plane, they’ll all shake slotted cans. When pilots successfully land jets, they’ll dance down the aisle saying ”make it rain” while passengers shower them with dollar bills.
I wouldn’t be surprised.