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Phoenix Sky Harbor workers file complaint, vote to strike over dangerous working conditions and low wages

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, workers, union, Phoenix City Council, Ortiz

State Rep. Analise Ortiz, D-Phoenix, left, high-fives Michael Smith outside Phoenix City Hall on Sept. 6, 2023. Ortiz showed her support for Sky Harbor concession workers after they provided personal testimony at a city council meeting about low wages and tough working conditions. (Photo by Kevinjonah Paguio/Cronkite News)

Phoenix Sky Harbor workers file complaint, vote to strike over dangerous working conditions and low wages

Two groups of airport workers are speaking out about what they say are dangerous working conditions and low wages at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Concession workers contracted by SSP America voted on Sept. 1 to authorize a strike after negotiations between the union, UNITE HERE Local 11, and the employer broke down. As of Wednesday, there were no plans for the workers to walk out.

Service workers contracted by Prospect Airport Services filed a complaint with the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health on Sept. 6 alleging violations of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. Service workers include employees who handle bags, clean airplane cabins, assist passengers in wheelchairs and more.

Both groups say workers are subjected to extreme heat or unclean work areas, in addition to being underpaid and denied benefits. Patricia Ray, a bartender at Sky Harbor, spoke at a Phoenix City Council meeting about her experience.

“I love my job and I love welcoming visitors to our beloved state, but working at SSP has made it difficult for me to afford my bills,” Ray told council members on Sept. 6. Additionally, Ray said she only makes about $400 every two weeks after taxes.

According to an unreleased study from Worker Power Institute and Grand Canyon Institute, 60% of airport employees who work at least 30 hours per week make under $800 per week.

Ray and other UNITE HERE Local 11 members gathered outside of city hall last Wednesday to distribute food to members and prepare to speak before city council, which approves airport contracts for employers like SSP and Prospect.

Ray told Cronkite News that a strike would not be just to advocate for SSP workers, but also to inspire other airport workers as well.

“This strike is advocating for those that don’t have a voice, for those that have been suppressed in their work environments,” she said. “The strike also is giving people hope, letting people know that we’re here for you. And as much as it is personal for me, it’s as personal for those other employees that work in that airport as well.”

A spokesperson for Sky Harbor declined to comment about the strike vote and the complaint but said that the airport takes measures to protect employees from extreme heat, including postponing noncritical outdoor work, scheduling such work at night and encouraging employees to take frequent breaks and hydrate.

At a press conference Sept. 6, Prospect workers spoke about their experiences at Sky Harbor, including Linda Ressler, a cabin cleaner.

“Over the course of the last few months, I have experienced nearly every symptom of heat illness,” Ressler said at the press conference. “I’ve suffered from extreme fatigue, weakness, headaches, vomiting, muscle cramps, loss of coordination and nausea.”

Ressler is one of four employees listed in the complaint filed by Prospect workers. The complaint alleges that workers don’t receive adequate breaks to cool down; don’t have access to cool, clean water; and don’t receive appropriate medical care when experiencing heat-related illness at work.

Victoria Stahl, communications organizer for UNITE HERE Local 11, said the conditions reported by both groups are not unusual or new.

“These conditions have always been the reality for so many workers, the hidden reality for workers,” Stahl said. “People don’t want to see this side of the city, people want to go to the airport, they want to get on their plane with their latte and make sure that they make it on time. It doesn’t come across (to) the everyday person what it takes to make that happen.”

The Service Employees International Union, which represents the service workers, points to the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act as a possible solution. The proposed federal law would set a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour and benefit standards for airport workers, including security officers, food service workers, cleaning staff, ticketing agents and retail service workers.

Janae Van De Kerk, a passenger service assistant employed by Prospect, said the workers just want to receive the same federal protections that pilots and flight attendants do.

“Most of us really love our job; we really enjoy working with the passengers and everything,” Van De Kerk said. “It’s not like we’re unhappy with the job itself. It’s the conditions. We just want better conditions and to have a voice in what’s happening.”