Worker shortages fuel America’s worst labor crises
Across the country, flight attendants and airport staff are responding to a hailstorm of workplace issues related to wages and staffing. Air travel during the recovery from the pandemic has been marred by hundreds of thousands of canceled and delayed flights, attacks on flight attendants and widespread despair among airport workers and travelers.
While neither the strike by airport concession workers nor flight attendant protests are expected to disrupt air traffic this week, these are the latest signs of unrest in the country’s transport sector, just weeks after railway workers narrowly averted a strike fueled largely due to national labor shortages.
In the airline industry, airlines and air traffic controllers continue to point at each other to divert blame for disruptions as demand for air travel has recovered. Airlines, in particular, are struggling to attract workers in a red-hot job market where less grueling jobs are easier to find, and federal data shows airlines are responsible for the high rate of cancellations. There are still 54,000 fewer employees in the air transport sector than in February 2020.
Lucinda To is one of 1,000 striking workers at San Francisco International, where she has worked for 20 years. She prepares buffets, washes and clears tables in restaurants and the United Club lounge for weary travelers. It’s exhausting work that has only gotten harder this year, she said. With an inflation of 40 years, To said she would have to work 60 hours a week for two airport food service jobs at $16.99 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area. Her mortgage is $2,800 a month.
“Right now, my wages are so low that I couldn’t even buy a meal at this airport where hamburgers cost $22,” To said. “I have to work two jobs to support my family, and I always work double shifts.”
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61-year-old To regularly spends the night in her car at the airport, to save gas and pass the time between shifts that last late into the night and start early the next day.
The strike at San Francisco International is expected to “close virtually all airport food and beverage outlets,” union leaders from Unite Here Local 2 said, and the union is urging travelers to bring their own food. The foodservice employees are employed by more than 30 companies at 84 food and beverage outlets.
“San Francisco International Airport informs travelers that a labor action by airport food workers is affecting its workforce [at] restaurants and lounges,” said Doug Yankel, an airport spokesperson. “Some food and beverage outlets are closed, while others remain open with limited hours and offers.”
More protests are planned among hospitality workers, union officials said.
Worker shortages fuel America’s worst labor crises
United and Southwest flight attendants will demonstrate Tuesday during lengthy contract negotiations over wages, staffing and employee redeployment when flights are delayed or canceled. The protests will take place outside airports in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington and other cities.
At United, flight attendants said their lives were turned upside down by cancellations and delays, forcing them to routinely wait for hours unpaid on the phone with the airline’s schedule services. Some attendants slept on cots at airports this summer because hotels were overbooked.
The workers said the delays are caused by understaffing within the planning department.
Scott Pejas, a United flight attendant in Chicago and president of his local branch of the Association of Flight Attendants, said schedule disruptions have become the norm for flight attendants.
“We’re mentally and physically exhausted because instead of getting rest, we’re on hold, on the phone, trying to figure out where we’re going to spend the night or layover,” Pejas said. “The flight attendants land sometime at 10pm and have to wait on the phone until 1am to know where they are going to sleep. We’re not getting any rest.”
Joshua Freed, a United spokesperson, said the company is keen to reach a contract agreement with the union to allay flight attendants’ concerns.
“We’ve been working hard to reduce wait times for flight attendants to talk to a crew planner, including hiring more staff and adding digital options for some items,” he added.
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Lynn Montgomery, the president of TWU Local 556, which represents 18,000 Southwest flight attendants nationwide, said flight disruptions have become so routine that “workers are constantly working outside their normal schedules.”
“I’ve never seen flight attendants so discouraged,” said Montgomery, who also spent 30 years as a flight attendant in Southwest. “They feel like they’ve given and given, and the company doesn’t give back to them. It is now much more focused on investors than on employees.”
A Southwest spokesperson said the airline was encouraging employees to express their views.
“Information picket actions are common during contract negotiations and we do not expect any disruption to service as a result of the planned demonstration by off-duty flight attendants,” the spokesperson said.