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Employers at BWI Airport should be required to hire back workers laid off in pandemic, bill proponents say

A bill pending in the General Assembly would require employers at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to rehire workers laid off during the coronavirus pandemic once business recovers, a controversial idea that has won approval in Baltimore and some other cities.

A hearing on the bill will be held Friday in the House of Delegates. Specifically, it would require private-sector employers at the state-owned airport, except for the airlines, to bring back workers in order of seniority as the economy improves.

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“The pandemic and the resulting recession has wrecked people’s livelihoods, but it’s also disrupted their peace of mind,” said Del. Vaughn Stewart, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill. “Workers across Maryland are not going to be able to sleep tonight. ... They’re worried about how they’re going to pay their rent ... and they’re worried about paying their mortgage.”

Stewart argued that while bill opponents take issue with what they see as government interference in private business, the state and federal governments have poured billions of dollars into keeping private businesses afloat.

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“For me, what the bill is about is providing a little bit more peace of mind for a small sliver of workers,” Stewart said during a virtual news conference held by Unite Here Local 7, a union that represents hospitality workers, including several hundred food and retail workers at the airport.

About 1,200 to 1,300 private-sector employees, outside of the airlines, had worked at BWI in jobs such as cooks, servers, cashiers, cleaners and baggage handlers before the pandemic, but only about 20% are working now, said Roxie Herbekian, president of Unite Here Local 7. About 300 are unionized, she said.

The union successfully pushed similar legislation last year before the Baltimore City Council to require hospitality businesses to rehire laid-off workers when they reopen.

The hotel industry strongly opposed the measure, saying it unfairly targeted hotels and would take away flexibility businesses needed to recover from the pandemic.

Besides Baltimore, jurisdictions including Washington, D.C.; Providence, Rhode Island; and several places in California have passed similar laws, Herbekian said.

Late last month, the state Board of Public Works approved a package of rent relief and lease extensions for airport shops and restaurants that have lost business during the coronavirus pandemic. It expanded on assistance the airport and concessions developer Fraport Maryland had offered from April 2020 through December. The overall 15 months of waived, fixed rent represents approximately $16.4 million in relief.

The proposed bill includes remedies for those not recalled to win back jobs as well as back pay.

An airport spokesman said the Maryland Aviation Administration has concerns about the worker recall proposal, such as a mandate to collect and maintain personal information of workers that the agency does not employ.

“This could create privacy and liability concerns as it relates to providing the information to interested third parties,” said Jonathan Dean, the spokesman.

Dean said the administration has assisted both employees and businesses at the airport. The financial relief for food and retail concessions approved by the public works board will support both private sector employees and many small businesses, he said.

Fraport, which leases to airport tenants but does not hire the employees, said it believes restaurant and retail operators need the maximum amount of flexibility to survive.

“Throughout the last twelve months of this pandemic, they have had to be extremely flexible, creative and proactive in how they operate their businesses, balance customer needs and find essential resources,” said Gary Gilliard, a vice president for Fraport Maryland Inc., in an email. “We support and value their judgement and expertise as business owners.”

Airport worker Stephen Bethea, who works for LSG Sky Chefs, which provides in-flight meals, said he was laid off for six months and called back because of his 32-year tenure. But because of the reduction in flights, only eight of 80 people are left.

“We got called back because of the fact that I have more seniority than a lot of other people,” Bethea said, “but we still have a lot of people that’s been there 25 years not called back as of yet,” because the business is not there.

He said he worries that other experienced workers won’t have a chance to return once a seniority provision in the workers’ contract with Sky Chefs runs out.

“We need something to ensure that all workers will be called back,” Bethea said.

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