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Bill would give BWI employees the right to be rehired

BWI Airmall

File photo of the BWI Airmall in the southwest pier. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

In the latest effort to assure that laid-off hospitality workers are able to return to their jobs post-pandemic, labor activists are supporting a bill that would mandate private-sector employees at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport be allowed to return to their jobs when hiring resumes.

This follows a successful push for Baltimore city legislation that will require event centers and hotels to rehire workers laid off due to COVID-19 when they restore payrolls.

Since the pandemic’s onset, a massive amount of the hospitality industry has been laid off. Roxie Herbekian, president of United Here Local 7, the Maryland chapter of a North American union for hospitality workers, estimates that around 1,200 BWI employees are currently laid off.

Traffic in and out of the airport is down 60%, though at its lowest point in April 2020, it was down 96%.

If passed, the bill would address workers employed by private-sector operations and who work at the airport, which does not include airline employees, as those workers are often employed out-of-state. Those affected would include workers who work at restaurants, bars and stores inside the airport, as well as roles like baggage handlers.

According to BWI, only about 57% of the airport’s concessions are currently operating, with sales down 61% compared to last year.

Catering employees who prepare the food served on planes also would qualify.

Stephen “Step” Bethea, one such employee, said he was welcomed back to work in July after a monthslong layoff but that he is one of only around 17 out of his company’s 80 employees who is currently working. He was invited back due to his seniority at the company, but said that many employees who have worked there for over 20 years have still not been able to return.

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

The bill’s language requires employers that laid-off employees due to the pandemic to offer available positions to employees who previously held the same or a similar position; if the position remains unfilled, it must then be offered to a laid-off employee who “would be qualified for the position with the same training that would be provided to a new employee hired for that position.”

If multiple laid-off employees are available to fill an available position, the bill requires that it be given to the person with the most seniority. Employers are also required to give these workers up to 10 days to respond to an offer.

United Here has backed similar legislation in cities across the nation, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Providence, Rhode Island.

Some workers at BWI already have recall rights through union contracts, but Herbekian estimates that only 300 or so employees are protected by those contracts.

Stewart said that the main opposition to the bill, which will be heard in the House Economic Matters Committee on Friday, comes from employers who consider it to be government interference in private business. While he granted that those employers are essentially right, he also contended that massive relief funds from the federal and state governments can also be considered “government interference.”

Most recently, the Maryland Board of Public Works voted unanimously to extend a financial relief package for BWI food and retail operations through June 2021, totaling $16.4 million in rent relief for the approximately 120 concessions locations in the airport.

“It’s going to be, at worst, mildly burdensome for a few (employers) but life-changing for workers,” Stewart said.

When Baltimore city hospitality workers were fighting for the recall rights last fall, the bill was opposed by leaders within the hotel industry, which feared it would limit hotels’ flexibility to reopen on their own terms.

Currently, because hotels in Baltimore have not yet begun recovering from the pandemic, Amy Rohrer, president and CEO of the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association, said her organization cannot yet measure the effects that the ordinance will have on hotels.

A spokesman for BWI, Jonathan Dean, confirmed that the Maryland Aviation Administration, the state agency that owns and operates BWI, is delivering written testimony to the committee. He said that MAA has “concerns” about the bill; although MAA employees are not included in the proposed legislation, it does require the agency to maintain information about laid-off BWI employees and contact them regarding their recall rights.

The bill also states that “at the request of a laid-off employee, (MAA) may provide the laid-off employee’s contact information to third-party entities providing navigation and other social services.”

“MAA has concerns about the mandate to collect and maintain personal information of workers that we do not employ,” Dean explained via email. “This could create privacy and liability concerns as it relates to providing the information to interested third parties.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that a representative from MAA was testifying in front of the committee. The agency actually submitted written testimony.

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