The Rev. Ben Meyers, left, of the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo speaks during a recent rally in Burlingame held by food prep workers for Flying Food Group. The workers say their wages are not high enough. (Courtesy Alejandro Negrete)

The Rev. Ben Meyers, left, of the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo speaks during a recent rally in Burlingame held by food prep workers for Flying Food Group. The workers say their wages are not high enough. (Courtesy Alejandro Negrete)

Airline food preparers in Burlingame target ticket costs in quest for better pay, benefits

If you’ve recently dined while flying, you might be surprised to learn the airline who served you that meal probably paid just $3 for it. And with air carriers spending so little on food, the workers who prepare those in-flight meals must survive on inadequate wages while working in environments that are sweatshop-like and icy cold.

That’s according to Anand Singh, president of Unite Here Local 2, a labor union that recently demonstrated in Burlingame to protest pay and working conditions at Flying Food Group, a subcontractor that provides meals for carriers flying out of San Francisco International Airport and other hubs nationwide.

The employees typically earn $10.50 per hour, Singh said, and many do not participate in the company’s health insurance plan, due to high copayments.

Flying Food Group is one of three companies providing almost all in-flight meals to the airline industry, Singh explained, and employees of the other two firms, Gate Gourmet and LGS Sky Chefs, joined the recent demonstration.

Flying Food Group’s SFO-bound meals are created on an assembly line in Burlingame, and working conditions there are “horrendous,” according to Singh.

Ten-hour days and seven-day workweeks are not uncommon, Singh said, and many employees work in refrigerated rooms, where each must wear multiple layers underneath their uniforms in order to withstand the 40 degree temperatures. Singh added that some workers have claimed they were berated for taking bathroom breaks.

A manager at Flying Food Group’s Burlingame facility declined to comment, but company spokeswoman Ashley Dennison vehemently denied the accusation that employees were discouraged from taking bathroom breaks.

In a statement from Flying Food Group’s Chicago headquarters, officers of the company said, “We believe these claims are baseless and simply part of Unite Here’s ongoing campaign against our company. Providing our employees with a safe, comfortable and respectful work environment is of the utmost importance to us.”

The workers’ previous contract expired at the end of 2013, and Singh claimed the company’s new contract proposals “have not been meaningful.”

Maria Gomez has worked at Flying Food Group for three years. She makes $9.71 per hour and says she cannot afford the company’s health plan.

Despite working 65 hours per week at Flying Food Group, Gomez said she must do additional work elsewhere in order to support her family. With her evening job at a bakery, Gomez said she works a total of 75 hours per week, and that does not include the time she spends trying to sell life insurance and Avon products.

Gomez, who is a grandmother, admits this hectic pace is taking a toll on her. “I have to push my health concerns to the side, and I’m not able to rest like I should,” Gomez said. “I try to work as much as I can now, because I might not be able to in the future.”

In another statement, Flying Food Group said it was committed to providing “market competitive” wages and benefits and hoped amicable negotiations with the union would resume soon.

Singh’s criticism extends to the airlines, which he says are ultimately responsible for the economics of the situation. Adding five cents to the cost of each plane ticket would make it easy to give workers like Gomez an extra dollar per hour, Singh said, and raising prices by 50 cents per ticket could enable airport caterers to pay workers $20.50 per hour or provide better benefits.

“At the end of the day, this is about the airlines doing the right thing,” Singh said.airfareBurlingameFlying Food Groupin flight mealsSan Francisco International AirportUnite Here Local 2

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