(Courtesy photo)

Food workers at SFO call for increased wages, health care with strike vote

‘I can’t even think of having health insurance,’ one worker says

Nearly 1,000 airline catering workers at San Francisco International Airport voted in favor of a strike on Friday after negotiations over wage hikes and healthcare benefits stalled.

The 99.8 percent “yes” vote follows a previous vote held in a smaller SFO kitchen on Tuesday, where some 500 workers approved a strike with a 99.3 percent “yes” vote. Over the next two weeks, airline catering staff in 20 other cities are expected to take similar votes.

The workers are employed with two airline catering companies — LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet — that service major airlines like United, Delta, and American Airlines. They represented by UNITE HERE Local 2 and have been in contract negotiations since at least 2018.

But a breakdown in the bargaining has forced the negotiations into federal mediation, and airline catering employees say that many are willing to strike to have their demands of higher wages and healthcare benefits met.

While the airline industry is booming — American Airlines, Delta, and United made over $50 billion in combined profits in the last five years — employees at airport kitchen, including at SFO, say they are barely getting by.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Roberto Alvarez, who loads and unloads food and beverage on American Airlines planes at SFO.

Alvarez said that he had to borrow money from a friend to cover his rent after an injury in April caused him to miss two days of work.

“I can’t even think of having health insurance,” he said. “I go to a free clinic for my medical needs.”

The union said that the median wage for these workers is $18.66.

Anand Singh, UNITE HERE Local 2 president, said that a sticking point in the ongoing negotiations in healthcare.

According to the union, less than 50 percent of workers at the SFO airline catering kitchens had company health insurance in 2018, and only 10 percent had a child or family member covered.

“Premiums are out of reach for most folks — they range from $200 per month for an individual to $800 per month for family coverage,” said Singh. “It’s really just inaccessible. Even when workers do purchase health insurance through the companies, they are left with significant co-payments.”

“Too many people have to rely on public assistance, that’s unconscionable in the Bay Area, in an industry that racks up profits year over year,” he said.

Before a strike could begin, the National Mediation Board must first approve a release for the workers.

Sky Chefs said in a statement issued Saturday that it has “no confirmation of a formal request to the National Mediation Board for a release,” and that the company plans to continue ongoing negotiations “in good faith.”

“Our company values the hard work and dedication of our team members. Wages, as well as other benefits, including vacations, uniforms, and company provided meals, as well as health and welfare, are subject to the collective bargaining process between our company and their union representatives,” the company said.

Gate Gourmet said in a statement on Friday that it also “continues to work in good faith with the Union and federally appointed mediator to make improvements for our people across wages and benefits as we have in the past.”

A spokesperson for American Airlines said in a statement on Friday that the company “respects the right to free association and collective bargaining.”

The spokesperson pointed out that the company is not involved in ongoing negotiations and does not “anticipate any impact to our catering operations.”

“As negotiations continue, we will continue to monitor the situation,” the spokesperson said.

United Airlines said in a statement also issued Friday that “It is our understanding that the parties are in mediation with the National Mediation Board. While we are hopeful that those discussions will result in an agreement, we have contingency plans in place to preserve the experience of our customers.”

This story has been updated.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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