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Airline Catering Workers Are Fed Up with Poverty Wages and Unaffordable Health Care

Imagine having to choose between health insurance for your sick child or paying for basic expenses, like bills and groceries. It’s a choice that feels nearly impossible. Yet, thanks to a perverse business model used by some of the world’s largest and most profitable airlines, that difficult choice is a reality too many airline workers face today. 

Over the last five years, three of the four largest airlines in America – including American, United, and Delta – earned combined profits totaling nearly $50 billion. Despite record earnings, these airlines outsource an increasing amount of work, then flex their muscle to drive down wages and benefits all while walking away from any responsibility. 

A new report from Communications Workers of America (CWA) demonstrates the harmful effects of this outsourcing on airline workers. The percentage of outsourced employment in the U.S. domestic airline industry has skyrocketed, from 19% in 2001 to 30% in 2018. And as outsourcing of passenger and fleet service occupations has increased, wages have declined by five percent, demonstrating how outsourcing allows airlines to avoid paying workers a fair share of profits.

Take, for instance, the airline industry’s food service workers.  These individuals work in large industrial kitchens and freezers, and stock American, United and Delta flights with soda and snacks, yet they earn less than $15 per hour and are unable to afford the hefty family health insurance premiums.

To be clear, we aren’t talking about teenagers with summer jobs or part-time workers. Men and women with 20, 30, even 40 years of experience, who are raising families of their own, are, in some cases, forced to make below the minimum wage. Last summer, thousands of airline catering workers rallied at airports across the country to draw attention to their fight for fair compensation. 

Now, the inequity of this system has gotten Congress’ attention. On Wednesday, January 15th, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation will hold a hearing on working conditions for these employees.  Dr. Brian Callaci, the author of the CWA report, will testify, along with Marlene Patrick-Cooper, President of UNITE HERE Local 23, and Donielle Prophete, Vice President of CWA Local 3645. They will use this opportunity to shine light on the poverty wages, unattainable health care, and dangerous working conditions faced by thousands of subcontracted aviation workers.  

Patrick-Cooper, who represents airline catering workers, will testify about the impact poverty-level wages are having on America’s airline catering workforce. She will highlight wage rates below the minimum wage, the thousands without health care due to unaffordable premiums and survey findings showing that too many of the workers rely on Medicaid for their health care. 

Prophete will address the dangerous working conditions facing employees of airline subsidiaries such as Piedmont and Envoy.  One of Prophete’s colleagues, Kendrick Hudson, was tragically killed in August when the vehicle he was driving on an under-lit tarmac hit a piece of luggage and flipped over.  

Like many airline employees, the workers that Patrick-Cooper and Prophete represent were forced to take concessions in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Unlike other airline industry workers, however, these employees have not shared in the economic recovery or current record prosperity airlines enjoy. Despite years of protest, neither their employers nor the airlines they serve have shown interest in ensuring these employees earn the kind of fair wages and benefits that would lift them out of poverty. 

These workers are ready and willing to take action to earn the respect and living wages they deserve – including as a last resort, by striking. Catering workers in over 20 cities have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a fair deal can’t be reached. But to date the National Mediation Board has not “released” them from mediation and instead is keeping them in negotiations.

America’s subcontracted airline workers are fed up, and federal lawmakers should be, too. Congress can and should help them fight for the fair pay, dignity, safe working conditions, and respect they deserve by pressuring national mediators to act in the interest of catering workers and by calling on American, Delta and United to abandon the shameful business model that allows these airlines to keep these workers living in poverty and without healthcare.

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