SFO braces for busiest holiday season since start of pandemic

Workers raise new coronavirus concerns as crowds return

San Francisco International Airport is gearing up for the busiest season since the pandemic began. But recovery is not being felt evenly.

While increasing travel rates at SFO show passengers are more comfortable flying again, airport employees are concerned about facing larger crowds and lacking health insurance options if outbreaks occur.

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, 52,000 travelers came through SFO, more than even the peak during the summer travel season, which historically outpaces winter travel at San Francisco’s main airport.

Airport officials expect a higher number of international travelers this winter after restrictions were lifted on Nov. 8 to allow vaccinated foreign travelers to enter the country. Safer travel conditions, now that COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are widely available, are also fueling an increase in the number of travelers.

Passengers needed

The rebound is desperately needed for SFO, which continues to have a slower traffic return than other major airports around the country following the pandemic. Major airports in San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver have all outpaced SFO in terms of recovering to pre-pandemic travel levels, according to a November report from the San Francisco Office of the Controller.

“We still have ground to make up relative to our pre-pandemic levels, but we are on the road to recovery,” said Doug Yakel, public information office for SFO. “Ever since people got widespread access to vaccines, people are feeling better returning to the things they used to do.”

Domestic travel is at about 65% compared to pre-pandemic levels at SFO, Yakel said. For international flights, that drops to just 25%.

Travelers check-in for their United Airlines flights at Terminal 3 at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Travelers check-in for their United Airlines flights at Terminal 3 at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Recovery is complicated, however, for those interfacing with travelers this season and struggling to make enough hours while business remains slower than pre-pandemic levels.

“The whole pandemic is this double-edged sword of wanting business to return and being hopeful about that, but everybody is, of course, nervous about getting COVID, even despite the mandate to get vaccinated,” said Lorraine Powell, food service director with UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents 14,000 workers at SFO and in hotels, restaurants, tech cafeterias and other hospitality jobs.

“People are embracing recovery, but there’s still a concern about dealing with travelers from across the country, or world, with varying levels of respect to workers regarding their safety,” she said.

Molly Gomez, who has served thirsty travelers passing through San Francisco Airport since 1980, agrees. “I’m excited to have the business come back, but it’s busy again, and that’s also scary,” she said.

Gomez works at Napa Farms Market in the international terminal at SFO. But since returning to work in August, she said she has yet to make enough hours to qualify for the health insurance her employer offers, leading to new COVID concerns this holiday season.

“I wear a mask the whole time. But it doesn’t really feel that safe when it’s busy,” said Gomez, adding that she can’t take time off or else it will be even harder to qualify for insurance. “People take off their masks to drink and eat. And they often leave them on the table for you to pick up.”

Gomez is fully vaccinated, a requirement for all SFO workers, and recently received a booster shot against COVID-19. Vaccines, along with the airport’s indoor mask policy, have given her much more confidence in her safety as opposed to the time before vaccines were available, she said.

Jason Collette of Tapas and Taps restaurant makes drinks in the food court in the International terminal at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Jason Collette of Tapas and Taps restaurant makes drinks in the food court in the International terminal at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

But without health care, the 64-year-old fears what might happen if she is exposed to someone who isn’t vaccinated, or even if she needs to take a sick day for something other than COVID.

As COVID cases rise across California, most concerningly in areas such as the Central Valley and far Northern California, health and travel officials are warning flyers to take caution, starting with getting vaccinated or boosted, and masking up on flights and indoors.

“There are so many walks of life where a mask is no longer required, but air travel is one place where it really is,” said Yakel.

In addition to masking and requiring workers to be vaccinated, the airport is also continuing to offer rapid PCR testing that travelers can reserve in advance. And single-dose Johnson&Johnson vaccines are also available for travelers who aren’t yet vaccinated.

The airport is averaging about 3,000 tests per week, Yakel said, which have mostly been concentrated among international travelers who often must show proof of a negative test to enter a country.

Faulted fixes?

Health concerns among airline and airport workers have been aired throughout the pandemic. Frustrations over low wages and ineligibility for health insurance were raised in 2019, months before San Francisco issued its stay-at-home order in March 2020.

In November 2020, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that would require SFO employees to offer affordable health care plans for workers and their families. Through the “Healthy Airport Ordinance,” The City required that employers such as airlines and caterers offer employees family plans or make contributions to San Francisco’s health care fund.

The ordinance gives airlines and airport contractors two options. They can provide health insurance to all workers and their families at no cost to the employee, regardless of how many average weekly hours an individual works. Or, employers can contribute $9.50 per hour on behalf of each employee into a city-managed health care account, which provides options including coverage of dependents.

But the ordinance does not apply to concessions workers like Gomez, leaders at UNITE HERE Local 2 claim.

In 2014, SFO concessions workers with UNITE HERE Local 2 won a contract that included wage increases and an affordable health care plan for the whole family, according to Ted Waechter, a spokesperson for the union. Workers are eligible for the plans if they work at least 130 hours per month.

Part of that agreement included waiving the terms outlined in the airport’s Quality Standards Program, which set a minimum wage and other benefits for some airport workers. Because they waived the program in exchange for higher wages and health care directly through their employer, however, union officials allege concessions workers aren’t qualifying for benefits through the 2020 Healthy Airport Ordinance.

With fewer hours assigned, some workers are struggling to meet the 130 hour minimum for the insurance options they agreed to in their most recent contract.

“The worry over having health care is certainly an issue I’m hearing a lot at the airport because their schedules are not yet stable,” said Powell. “People are picking up two jobs at the airport if they are on the borderline and don’t have enough hours to qualify.”

Meanwhile, some employers who would be subject to the ordinance found ways around it. After the policy passed, one airline caterer, LSG Sky Chefs, moved some of its operations from SFO to San Jose International Airport.

“With air travel finally returning to SFO, everyone who works at the airport should have access to quality health care. Employers shouldn’t be withholding health insurance from frontline workers and their families by keeping them part-time or moving jobs to San Jose to avoid complying with our Healthy Airport ordinance,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who co-authored the ordinance.

Airport officials said they support workers’ rights to exercise free speech. SFO does not employ concessions workers, but leases space to their retail and restaurant employers.

“We lease space to these businesses and they make the decision about whether they will open their doors,” said Yukel, adding 80% of shops and restaurants have reopened at SFO. “In the darkest days of the pandemic, there was only one shop in each terminal. A lot of these places couldn’t make payroll. Now it’s recovered enough for them to do better than break even again.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

People in line to check in for flights at Turkish Airlines in the International terminal at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

People in line to check in for flights at Turkish Airlines in the International terminal at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

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