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What’s Worse Than Airline Food? The Catering Companies Selling It

Airline catering workers are fed up with what they say are intolerable conditions and low wages.

Airline catering workers are fed up with what they say are intolerable conditions and low wages, and they brought that message to doorstep of the Airline Passenger Experience Association Expo, held in Long Beach, Calif. during the last week of September. Roughly 150 UNITE HERE members, most from the Los Angeles local with some backup from Phoenix, staged a lively picket of the expo as attendees looked on.

Any traveler who’s spent time at a gate waiting for a flight to board has probably spotted airline-catering trucks zooming around the tarmac, loading and unloading the heavy carts flight attendants push up and down the aisles during beverage service. Workers say that, while airline food has a reputation for being vile, the working conditions behind that food are even worse.

Catering companies like LSG Sky Chefs, a Lufthansa-owned firm, rely on a heavily immigrant workforce at airports across the country, including in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Dallas. LSG Sky Chefs workers say they’re underpaid and forced to endure untenable conditions, particularly in the South and Southwest, where extreme heat on the tarmac makes workers miserable.

These service workers have only glancing interactions with passengers — waiting in line at shared public restrooms, or stepping aside for people boarding and off-boarding planes. They’re under tremendous pressure to keep pace with busy schedules and the demand for tight turnaround at the gate, facing challenging working conditions that include long, unfriendly hours and extreme weather.

Airline catering workers for LSG Sky Chefs and other companies — Gate Gourmet, and Flying Food Group — are now seeking to address these injustices. UNITE HERE members launched a national campaign in April to highlight their working conditions and visited a United Airlines shareholder meeting in May.

Wednesday’s demonstration called attention to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where many workers labor off-site in kitchens for LSG Sky Chefs. Margarita Hernandez, who has been working for the company for 20 years, is a dishwasher. “To clean the dishes,” she says, “we end up putting our hands inside the machine and exposing ourselves to really hot water and chemicals … it makes my fingers hurt to be working in the hot water.” Hernandez, who earns $12 an hour, says “it’s even more stressful because of these quotas they have of us … I’ve gotten urinary tract infections, because I’m not able to leave and go to the bathroom.”

Her colleague Clara Meza, a 33-year veteran, makes $14 an hour working in the assembly area, where she says she handles hot food in the mostly Latina-staffed kitchen. “They try to treat us like we’re slaves,” she says of the grueling pace in the kitchen. “But we’re not slaves. I know that slavery ended. It’s over.” Burns, cuts and other injuries litter OSHA logs provided by UNITE HERE.

Once that food leaves the kitchen, it winds up in sealed catering trucks taken through security and out to the tarmac by drivers. At LAX, those drivers look a lot like Alcidez Loeza, a 52 year old who’s been working for LSG Sky Chefs for four years. Loeza is one of the workers passengers sometimes see operating specialized trucks as they raise and lower carts to the galley on aircraft. “They will show a movie,” he says of the training process, “but I personally never received any special training. They usually just send someone to tell us what to do. We don’t have any special equipment or protections.

The most difficult part of Loeza’s job takes place on the tarmac, inside the trailers installed as staging areas for drivers and other staffers known as “helpers.” The unventilated trailers surrounded by concrete get hot rapidly in the shimmering L.A. heat, but drivers are expected to work full shifts there. “Some of my coworkers have had heat-related symptoms,” he said, describing rashes and workers who “feel bad.” They won’t find relief in their trucks, either, because they’re not provided with air conditioning.

In an OSHA complaint provided to In These Times, Loeza and his colleagues claimed they also had inadequate access to bathrooms, with airport geography forcing them to walk across areas of the tarmac used by taxiing planes, which led some to withhold water. Loeza said that sometimes his coworkers resorted to urinating in water bottles, explaining that “there’s not even a way to wash our hands, because there’s no water.” According to their OSHA complaint, a portable washing station isn’t serviced regularly, forcing people to wash clumsily with bottled water.

He says he makes $15.70 hourly, the same as a colleague who’s been with the company for 45 years. LAX has an airport living wage similar to that seen at Seattle-Tacoma, Chicago O’Hare and San Jose International. Even off-site workers, like Meza and Hernandez, are supposed to be subject to the wage, but they contend they’re not receiving the benefits and wages they were promised.

“I’m not able to help my children or my granddaughters when I barely have enough for myself,” says Hernandez. Like any city, Los Angeles is an expensive place to live, but rents there are particularly high, with the cost of living rising steadily each year. According to the 2016 Casden Real Estate Economic Forecast, the average rent in L.A. County was $1,307. “It’s expensive to live in LA,” says Meza. “I have to pay bills, pay rent, pay car insurance, health insurance copays.”

Catering workers are asking for better wages for themselves and their colleagues, and Loeza also wants greater access to bathrooms and sanitation. “Sometimes I see my coworkers walking across the runway to go to the bathroom,” explains Loeza. “I don’t think that’s right.” Improved ventilation and access to shade are also important for tarmac personnel working in high heat.

“LSG Sky Chefs is committed to providing a safe working environment for our employees,” the company said in a statement, adding that it provided workers with “opportunities to cool off.” It declined to address questions about wages and sanitation.

In 2016, the LSG Group, which includes Sky Chefs, made nearly 3.8 billion in consolidated revenues, serving 209 airports worldwide. The bulk of its business focuses on airline catering, though it also offers auxiliary services, with an aggressive expansion strategy targeting new customers and markets.

Using contractors like LSG Group allows airlines to delegate the responsibility for working conditions, although workers who service United and American flights have attempted to force the airlines’ hands with public demonstrations like the one on Wednesday. Those say LSG Group has promised better wages and benefits but failed to deliver. Time will tell whether their rallies spark a sea change in the way the company treats workers.

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