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

s.e.smith

Catering workers staged a protest at the Airline Passenger Experience Association Expo in Long Beach, Calif. on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of UNITE HERE)

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. 

s.e.smith is an essay­ist, jour­nal­ist, and activist is on social issues, with cred­its in pub­li­ca­tions like The Guardian, Bitch Mag­a­zine, Alter­Net, Jezebel, Salon, the Sun­dance Chan­nel blog, Long­shot Mag­a­zine, Glob­al Com­ment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Rewire. Fol­low @sesmithwrites .
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH