Commuting brings challenges for Hartsfield-Jackson workers

Patrons using fare machines at the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport MARTA station. KENT D. JOHNSON AJC File Photo

Patrons using fare machines at the Hartsfield Jackson International Airport MARTA station. KENT D. JOHNSON AJC File Photo

As the largest job site in the state, some 63,000 people work at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Although these employees help people travel around the world, it's hard for some airport workers to just make it to to their jobs.

Commuting comes with its hassles for workers all over the region. But the Atlanta airport presents some particularly daunting challenges for workers and for companies trying to recruit and retain employees in a tight job market.

For one, parking at the airport is expensive. Some employees get parking subsidized or partially subsidized by employers, but others don’t and are on their own. For companies that do subsidize the cost of parking for employees, it adds to the cost of doing business.

“The lower-wage workers are the ones who have to pay for parking at the airport,” said Joddie Gray, program director of Airport Employee Ride Options, a Hartsfield-Jackson program that aims to help workers find the best way to get to work. Through a survey of workers at the airport, Gray found that “the lower your wages, the more you paid for parking, essentially.”

Secondly, MARTA is convenient for those who live in areas of Atlanta and the suburbs served by the train. But Gray said her group's analysis shows that many of the low-wage workers at Hartsfield-Jackson live south of the airport, an area not served by MARTA rail since the airport is the end of the line.

And, MARTA doesn’t operate 24 hours a day, while the airport does. Airport workers who have early-morning shifts to prepare food for breakfast at restaurants in the terminal or concourses or finish their shifts in the middle of the night don’t have MARTA as an option.

"Employees are coming to the airport at all hours," said Polly Sattler, senior sustainability planner at Hartsfield-Jackson. Much of the cleaning and maintenance of the terminal and airfield happens overnight.

What’s more, many who work in low-paying jobs at the airport can’t afford cars. If they don’t live near a MARTA station or bus route, walking or biking is not an option: The terminal is surrounded by runways, taxiways and airport roads and is not accessible for pedestrians or bicyclists.

As a result, some of the lowest-paid workers at the airport spend their days or nights cleaning the terminals or restrooms or working in the airport’s hundreds of restaurants and shops serving travelers headed on business trips or vacations, but the employees struggle to find rides to work or have to cobble together ways to get to their jobs.

Cheryl Williams, who works for a contractor as an airport passenger assistant helping travelers in wheelchairs, doesn’t have a car and said she takes Uber to work from her home on Camp Creek Parkway, about a 15 minute ride from the terminal. It can cost more than $8 a ride. The bus doesn’t run by her apartment, Williams said.

To get back home from work, Williams waits for an hour after her shift ends for her friend to finish work and gets a ride with her. “I give her a little money for taking me home,” Williams said, adding that there aren’t other options, “until I get some transportation.”

Some employees who have cars but don’t have subsidized parking at the airport drive to hotels around the airport and take the hotel shuttle to the terminal, tipping the drivers to maintain the relationship.

Employers say some commuting challenges can drive workers to leave, making it more difficult to retain employees and increasing hiring needs.

“Workers take the job thinking they can make it work. They think they’ll figure out the transportation system, but they don’t, and they find out how expensive it is and they quit,” Gray said. “Well, that’s a burden on our employers,” who have to pay for federal background checks, badging and training for each new hire.

Hojeij Branded Foods, which operates restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson including Chick-fil-A, P.F. Chang's, Varasano's and others, pays for parking at off-airport shuttle lot FastTrack/Avistar for the concessionaire's roughly 800 employees at the Atlanta airport. About 200 use the parking, which the company pays $64 a month for per employee, said Muhisani Kerr, a human resources coordinator for Hojeij. The rest, about 600 employees, use MARTA bus or train service.

A lot of employees don’t have cars, Kerr said. Some take a bus and a train, and can’t take MARTA if their shift starts at 5 a.m. or earlier for a breakfast shift. Others can’t stay for extended openings to keep restaurants open when flights are delayed if MARTA will be closed by the time they finish.

When hiring, “We ask them that question: Will you be able to commute? How far do you live? Do you have reliable transportation? And they all say yes,” Kerr said. “But after that they leave.” Onboarding an employee costs Hojeij $300 to $500, including fingerprinting, badging, uniforms and training, she said.

It’s a challenge Hartsfield-Jackson has been trying to tackle through the Airport Employee Ride Options program, known as AERO for short. The program, which costs about $996,000 with about $464,000 to be paid through a grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission, promotes commute alternatives like carpooling, vanpooling and transit. It’s similar to other transportation management associations in the Perimeter area, Buckhead, Cumberland, Midtown, downtown and the Clifton corridor.

In addition to route planning for workers, AERO helps match workers together based on their routes for carpools and vanpools and pays workers $5 a day for 90 days for switching to alternative commutes through a partnership with Georgia Commute Options. It also has a guaranteed ride home program for workers who take transit.

“When it’s hard for people to get here or it’s expensive to them, if we can help with that, then it’s going to be easier for them to get here, and it’s going to be easier for the employers,” Sattler said.

But the program has been temporarily scaled back due to a gap in funding, Gray said. At the beginning of this year, it scaled back its help desk in the terminal to one day a week. Gray hopes for funding approvals in June.

While airlines like Delta and Southwest provide parking lots with shuttles to the terminal for their workers, and some administrative employees at the airport get employee parking, workers for contractors that handle maintenance and operations at the airport may not. Different concessionaires and airport businesses handle employee parking and MARTA pass subsidies differently.

MARTA has considered 24-hour rail service, but the main impediment is the need to do maintenance without train traffic, according to spokeswoman Stephany Fisher.

MARTA has bus service to College Park but does not directly serve the main domestic terminal “because of the traffic congestion around it,” according to Fisher. “There aren’t any plans to add to that service or extend it to the airport at this time.”

In future years, a Clayton County commuter rail line in development is expected to connect to the airport.

Meanwhile, the challenges remain for many workers, especially those who can’t rely on MARTA to get to work.

“I do believe a lot of people can’t afford the car, can’t afford insurance,” Gray said. “You’re talking about a a pretty expensive commute for somebody who’s making minimum wage.”

Workers at Hartsfield-Jackson

  • 63,000 people work at the airport, including airline, airport, ground transportation, concessions, security, contractors, federal and city workers.
  • There are more than 200 concessions at the airport.
  • 65 percent of employees at the airport drive alone to work, and 20 percent of employees at the airport use transit
  • Among airline employees: 79 percent drive alone, 4 percent use transit
  • Among airport retail and food service workers: 51 percent drive alone, 38 percent use transit
  • Of the airport retail and food service workers who drive to work, 65 percent pay for parking.

Source: Hartsfield-Jackson, Airport Employee Ride Options