Ryan Floyd Johnson

GLADYS HERNANDEZ says her job as a passenger assistance worker at Portland International Airport provides her with benefits—two, to be exact.

"I tell people that one benefit is that I like my job," the 61-year-old says. "The other benefit is that it helps me with my diabetes because I walk a lot."

Hernandez has worked full-time for Huntleigh USA—a firm that airlines hire to do tasks like handling baggage and cleaning airplane cabins—for eight years. Her job doesn't actually offer traditional benefits, much like the other subcontracted workers at the airport who earn Oregon's minimum wage: $9.25 an hour.

While that's a higher minimum wage than in many states, it isn't easy to live on. Even at 40 hours a week, it amounts to about $19,240 a year—and that's if Huntleigh doesn't chop some of Hernandez's hours, which she says happens often.

Her paycheck is also garnished because she got behind on credit card payments. Hernandez can't afford health insurance, so she can't afford to see a doctor for treatment of her diabetes. She says her health care plan is to "take good care of herself and have a positive attitude."

Hernandez is one of hundreds of Portland airport workers who hope joining a union's the answer to better pay. She got the idea a few years ago and has been recruiting coworkers ever since. More than half of her roughly 600 colleagues have signed on so far, Hernandez says, but the group's trying to get two-thirds on board before putting it to a vote.

"They work you to death out there until you either get fed up and quit or you screw up and get fired," she says. "We are not begging for money. We're working for it."

For the last three years in a row, Travel + Leisure magazine has listed Portland International Airport as the country's best, and Tina Cummins says she wishes they'd credit the workers with making PDX number one. Cummins, 60, works as an airplane cabin cleaner for Menzies Aviation, another company that subcontracts workers at the airport.

She's been working at the airport for nine years, and makes a little more than Hernandez—$12 an hour. Cummins lives with her husband, two grown children, and her 11-year-old grandson, and she says without the help of her husband's pension—he's a retired TriMet employee—she and her family would be on the street.

"It's a hard job and I have a whole family that depends on my wages," she says. "It's hard when I'm trying to afford school clothes and school supplies for my grandson."

The airport workers are part of a broader push for higher wages in Oregon. A statewide movement to raise Oregon's minimum wage to $15 might land on the ballot in November 2016, if advocates can gather all 88,184 valid signatures needed by July. Jamie Partridge, one of the chief petitioners for that ballot measure, says the group's gathered approximately 3,000 signatures so far.

But the airport workers aren't waiting. Meg Niemi, president of the Portland chapter of Service Employees International Union Local 49, says Hernandez and the other airport laborers have seen the improvements enjoyed by a group of airport janitors who recently formed a union. She confirmed that the laborers have majority support, and plan to approach their individual employers early next month to ask if they'd be willing to voluntarily recognize their right to unionize.

Nick Ashton, a 31-year-old baggage handler who also works for Huntleigh, supports himself and his fiancée on his $9.25 hourly wage. He says he feels like his complaints about working conditions fall on deaf ears and thinks being part of a union would give workers more power to negotiate for improvements.

The couple recently found an apartment in Troutdale. Ashton says it's difficult making the $875 monthly rent on that wage, and that there's hardly anything left over once rent and food is paid for.

"It's really difficult living paycheck to paycheck," he says. "If I made $15 an hour it would make things a lot smoother. Maybe I could see a doctor. Maybe I could go to the dentist."