Rev. Ben Meyers of the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo addresses the Airport Commission on Tuesday. (Courtesy Laurel Fish)

Rev. Ben Meyers of the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo addresses the Airport Commission on Tuesday. (Courtesy Laurel Fish)

Airline food service workers push for SFO minimum wage

Airline food service workers who have been negotiating with their employers for better wages tried a new approach on Tuesday, asking the Airport Commission to expand San Francisco International Airport’s $13.25 minimum wage requirement to cover employees who work at off-site kitchens that service the airport.

Almost all in-flight meals in the United States are provided by three catering companies, which use kitchen assembly lines to prepare meals before trucking them to airports. Two of those companies, LSG Sky Chefs and Flying Food Group, prepare their SFO-bound meals at facilities in Burlingame, where workers are not covered by the airport’s minimum wage.

The third company, Gate Gourmet, assembles its meals in a facility that is on SFO property, but due to some technicalities, workers at that kitchen are similarly not covered by the airport’s minimum wage requirement.

The starting pay at Flying Food Group is reportedly $9.44 per hour. The average wage at all three facilities is about $10.50 per hour, and employees say they often work overtime without getting enough days off.

MJ Topacio, a Flying Food Group employee, was one of about 100 demonstrators who showed up for the Airport Commission’s Tuesday meeting at City Hall in San Francisco. Topacio was one of several workers who addressed the commission, claiming she was subjected to long hours, low pay and bad working conditions.

“During the busy season, I worked seven days a week for two months straight without a day off,” Topacio said, according to a transcript of comments from the meeting, provided to the San Francisco Examiner by Unite Here Local 2. “Because my pay is so low, I need the extra hours, and Flying Food Group does not have enough employees to cover those shifts.”

Unite Here Local 2, the union representing employees at all three companies, has been in contract negotiations with Flying Food Group since the workers’ previous contract expired at the end of 2013.

In a July statement to the Examiner, Flying Food Group said it was committed to providing “market competitive” wages and benefits.

Unite Here Local 2 President Anand Singh claimed that airlines have recovered from the sharp downturn the industry suffered after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but that recovery has not trickled down to the catering workers, who can’t afford to live in the Bay Area.

That sentiment was echoed by Gate Gourmet employee Nataniel Baquedano, who said he is earning just $12.10 per hour after working at the company for 18 years.

“Before 9/11, we had full healthcare coverage, sick days and substantial wage increases every year,” Baquedano said. “After 9/11, the company asked us to agree to salary freezes and wage cuts, but promised they would raise our wages once the economy recovered. Fourteen years later, they still haven’t delivered on their promises.”

The Airport Commission did not respond to an interview request, but Singh said the commissioners seemed interested in the workers’ concerns. The labor leader acknowledged that the commissioners would need time to research the matter and determine what actions they can legally take, but he said his group “felt very good” about the response they received.

SFO Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Kandace Bender said, “The airport is committed to a fair living wage for all workers. The commission took the comments from the workers seriously, and the commission and airport will continue the dialogue with union leadership.”

Although he was optimistic, Singh vowed to keep pressuring the catering companies and their airline clients to provide better wages and benefits to the union’s members.

“We’re not going to let another fall season pass and have workers in this industry continue to be treated like second-class citizens,” Singh said.airline workersairplaneairportFlying Food GroupGate GourmetlaborLSG Sky ChefsSan Francisco International AirportSFOunionUnite Here Local 2

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