EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include comment from HMS Host.
There’s been a lot to think about nationally this week. There was the extraordinary report showing that between April 2020 and April 2021 more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses: I can’t think of any single piece of data I’ve seen in recent years that so succinctly shows the scale of America’s current addiction tragedy, or the vastness of the societal dysfunction and desperation unleashed these past decades by peddlers of death such as the Sackler family. There was also news on California’s budget front showing that the state is once again improbably flush with cash, and heading for a $31 billion budget surplus. That will open up doors for more expansive social policies and safety net programs. On the other hand, there’s been the relentlessly bad news about inflation and supply chain snarls, and the impact this is having on national politics and on the public perception of the Biden administration.
But I want to return to labor issues. This week, concession workers in Sky Harbor, Phoenix’s sprawling airport, voted on striking later this year against HMS Host, the large company responsible for operating the main food and drink outlets in the airport.
For the past four years, UNITE Here! Local 11 has worked to secure a decent contract for servers, bartenders, baristas, dishwashers and cooks in the airport; and, over that same period, HMS Host, the largest airport concessionaire in the country, has, the union argues, consistently failed to come up with decent contract provisions. Longtime workers, even the hundred or so who stuck by their posts during the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020, haven’t seen a pay increase since 2017; they aren’t provided pensions, have extremely limited vacation time, and, since 2019, have had to pay more for their health insurance—and have been bumped onto a substandard plan that, workers say, often denies them coverage for necessary medications and treatments.
“I’ve been with this company 17 years,” says 42-year-old Lucia Salinas, a cook at the Cowboy Ciao restaurant. “And we’ve been fighting for a few years for affordable health care and more wages.”
A spokesperson for HMS Host disputes the union’s claims, arguing that they have proposed a 12 percent wage increase during contract negotiations, a healthcare plan toward which workers would have to contribute as little as $55 per month, and a 401k retirement plan that, the company claims, offers better end-of-career remuneration than does the union proposal. They also point to the fact they offered $800 bonuses to airport employees in September of this year.
But after 17 years on the job, Salinas makes $16 an hour, a measly one dollar an hour more than the wage paid a new hire. She spends $400 a month of her wages on her insurance premiums and co-pays—and, since the insurance won’t cover the $1,000 shots that she needs twice a month for psoriasis, she has to travel to Mexico on a regular basis to purchase the treatment more affordably. As for a pension, the company provides none, and she has no leftover cash at month’s end to put any money aside for the future.
During the pandemic, the airport qualified for millions of dollars in federal relief funds, including, most recently, more than $8 million in ARPA money (the act set aside a total of $800 million for airports, and divided up the money, airport by airport, based on 2019 employment data). And yet, even though $640 million of the national total of $800 million was ostensibly tailored as grants for small businesses—in other words, the stores and their workers inside the terminals rather than the parent companies—on the ground, the wealth hasn’t really been spread. There is, in fact, a giant loophole in ARPA’s wording that allows joint-venture companies—parent companies such as HMS Host—to claim small-business status so that they, rather than the small concession stands themselves, receive the government payments.
At Sky Harbor, HMS Host has accessed funds for rental relief and has also gotten subsidies against its annual guarantees—guaranteed minimum sums that companies such as HMS Host pay to airports each year for the privilege of setting up lucrative enterprises inside the terminals. So far, those federal dollars haven’t trickled down to the actual frontline workers. Instead, HMS Host been asking its workers to do more with less.
Throughout the pandemic, Sky Harbor has been plagued by staffing problems—resulting in a one-day strike on September 15, led by baristas at the airport’s Starbucks, by workers who alleged that individuals were being asked to do work originally intended to be divided between two and even three people. Now, workers furious that they are being chronically undervalued, despite the lip service paid to their “essential status,” are about to return for round two in their ongoing battle with HMS Host.
“This company is not respecting us and not respecting our union,” Salinas said on the day of the strike vote. “I don’t make enough to pay my insurance. I deserve a pension. This company has been denying everything.”