ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Around the country, hundreds of airport workers have been protesting today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Airport workers are under attack. What do we do?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Stand up like that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Airport workers are...
SHAPIRO: Those are the voices of workers and their supporters who were out in Newark, N.J. There were also demonstrations in New York, Chicago and Miami. The marchers all called for a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In Newark, workers carried picket signs of Martin Luther King Jr. through the airport.
KEVIN BROWN: If Dr. King were alive today, he would be standing alongside of us.
WANG: That was Kevin Brown, New Jersey's state director of the local service employees Union, 32BJ SEIU.
BROWN: The fight for civil rights is the fight for union rights.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yes.
WANG: Some of the crowd were in between work shifts at the airport, but many had the day off from working as baggage handlers and airplane cabin cleaners, including 51-year-old America Hernandez.
AMERICA HERNANDEZ: I'll even (unintelligible) say I'll clean the plane all night
WANG: Hernandez works for PrimeFlight, a contractor for United Airlines. She cleans about 20 airplane cabins from 10 at night to 7:30 in the morning for $10.10 an hour.
HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
WANG: Hernandez says her salary is enough to pay the bills for her and her four children, but what's left over, she says, is not enough to even buy a piece of candy.
HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
RAQUEL BRITO: We're just tired of struggling just to get by. It's too much living paycheck to paycheck.
WANG: Raquel Brito is baggage handler at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. She's 20 years old and currently makes $11 an hour. That's why Brito says she protested today outside United Airlines' headquarters in Chicago. Fifteen dollars, she says, is an hourly wage she can actually live on. United Airlines and PrimeFlight did not respond to NPR's interview request before broadcast. Today's protests come during a national debate about minimum wage increases. Some economists say it's not clear what the actual economic impact of an increase would be.
DAVID NEUMARK: We don't really have any great confidence about what a $15 minimum wage would mean, whether across-the-board or for a particular set of workers.
WANG: That was David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine. In general, he says, raising the minimum wage for workers also raises prices of products and services.
NEUMARK: At some level, they increase prices. People buy less from those businesses, and those businesses use fewer workers. And that channel is arguably a lot weaker at airports.
WANG: Neumark argues that raising airport wages wouldn't necessarily have a big impact on whether travelers buy plane tickets.
NEUMARK: People at airports aren't poor on average. It's a high-income segment of the population going through airports.
WANG: The wages of airport workers also don't make up the bulk of what it costs to fly, according to Arin Dube, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
ARIN DUBE: When you think about what goes into the cost of a flying from, let's say, Boston to San Francisco, the cost of baggage handlers and other low-wage workers in wages in determining the cost of flying is very tiny.
WANG: Dube argues that higher minimum wages could result in a benefit to airline companies.
DUBE: When you raise wages of low-wage workers at the airport, you may also increase their productivity.
WANG: David Neumark at UC, Irvine, though, isn't convinced. He says having to pay more for low-skilled workers at airports may push companies to hire more higher skilled workers instead. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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