Ground handlers at Pearson airport see 160% turnover rate

Monday, on International Workers Day, hundreds of ground workers are expected to rally on the inside roadway outside Terminal One at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. The workers are rallying for a minimum wage of $15 for all staff employed by the more than 300 companies operating out of Pearson.

Ground handling contractor says more workers quitting than it can hire

"Holding an X," with red batons - an international signal to stop. A pilot waits for the all-clear signal from a ground worker on the Pearson tarmac. (Gary Deol/Submitted)

This International Workers Day, hundreds of ground workers are rallying for a minimum wage of $15 for all staff employed by the more than 300 companies operating out of Pearson.  

CBC Toronto took a look at working conditions for ground handlers who do everything from load bags, signal pilots on the runway and prep the air conditioning and water before the planes take off.   

Ground workers at Pearson, packing the cramped hold of a vacation airplane. Their employer pays hefty penalties to the airline if a flight is delayed because bags aren’t loaded in time. (CBC)

It's not easy stacking suitcases in the cramped hold of the narrow-body vacation planes at Pearson Airport. Ground handlers, as they're called, crouch, heads grazing the ceiling, hoisting up to 200 suitcases in half an hour, racing to meet the flight deadline, before starting all over again on another plane.

Staggering turnover rate

Many workers quit after only a few months, because of low starting wages—less than $12 an hour—and tough working conditions. The turnover rate among baggage handlers for Menzies, one ground handling contractor at Pearson, was a staggering 160 per cent last year, according to the Machinists Union (IAMAW), which represents Menzies ground crews.

Swissport, Menzies's competitor and the biggest ground-handling contractor in the world, says 400 of its 500 ramp workers, as they're called, quit last year, making it increasingly difficult for the company to do business at Pearson.

Chris, on a day off after a week of complicated overnight shifts. Chris calls ground handling 'a workaholic culture,' where supervisors often beg workers to stay overtime, to help understaffed ground crews. (CBC)

Chris, a recent hire who signed a confidentiality agreement and didn't want her real name used, says she moved up 15 seniority spots in just over two months because so many people hired before her have quit.  

A workaholic culture

Chris says there's constant pressure to work overtime because ground crews are so understaffed.

"I have supervisors begging me to stay," said Chris, "even after I've already done a 12-hour shift."

Chris doesn't mind the heavy lifting but says working with understaffed crews takes another kind of toll.

"I think people feel under-valued, more than feeling broke," said Chris. "But in a world, where the dollar is how people survive, I think that's what this fight is really about .. feeling valued in the workplace for the work you do and the labour you put in."

A ground worker at Pearson loads suitcases onto a conveyor belt. (CBC)

Contract flipping is endemic at Pearson, with both airlines and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) switching ground handling and security contractors every few years in an effort to cut costs, making airport jobs among the most precarious in the country.

Even Swissport Canada supports the campaign for a $15 minimum.  It's not every day that an employer advocates for a higher minimum wage but the company wants an end to contract flipping at Pearson.

Contract flipping creates instability

"It creates a lot of instability in the operation," said Pierre Payette, vice-president of operations for Swissport Canada. "We've seen the problem grow. In 2015, we were losing people but we were able to hire as many, if not more. So we were ahead of the game. In 2016 is when we first encountered that we were not successful, hiring sufficient to backfill what we are losing."

UNIFOR banners at one of the rallies to protest sub-contracting at Pearson. UNIFOR represents about 4,500 workers at Pearson, one of more than half a dozen unions that form the Toronto Airport Workers Council. (Toronto Airport Workers Council)

A $15 minimum wage for airport workers would have to be imposed by the airport authority, which has agreed to look at the issue. But Swissport isn't waiting for the GTAA and is already in talks with Teamsters, the union that represents Swissport's ground crews. Payette says that by this summer, he hopes to raise the starting wage for his ground workers from $11.60 an hour to about $14.  

Bonuses not enough

Weather conditions are another factor in high attrition rates on the tarmac at Pearson. In fact, attrition is so bad that last summer Payette offered ground workers a $500 bonus to stick with the company through Toronto's hot humid summer.

Payette says it only resulted in a 38% retention rate. He doubled the bonus to $1,000 for the damp cold winter months, and although the latest analysis isn't complete, Payette says it wasn't enough to stop workers from quitting.  

Swissport's Pierre Payette says every time a ground handler quits, the company loses $3,500 in training costs. With 400 ramp workers quitting last year, he says it cost the company $1.4 million. 'I can tell you going back to 2014, the problem was in a different category than today. Today, it is serious.' (Submitted by Pierre Payette)

"I think when I tell people I work at the airport," said Chris, "they assume that it's like I get paid a lot of money and I get great benefits. People assume that things that are public jobs are better-paid."

But in spite of the low wages, and challenging as the work is, Chris enjoys working on the tarmac at Pearson, and waving passengers off as the plane taxis away.  

"We usually wave them goodbye, kind of salute, said Chris. "That's my favourite part. Some people hate that, they would rather just stack luggage and leave.  I like walking the plane out."