Workers for airport, airline contractors endure job turmoil

In this file photo, cleaning crew thoroughly wipe down an aircraft cabin on Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
In this file photo, cleaning crew thoroughly wipe down an aircraft cabin on Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Contract staffs enjoy fewer protections than Delta, government workers

Wilfred Arceneaux was a cocktail server at Mustard Seed BBQ in the world’s busiest airport until the bustle of hundreds of thousands of passengers slowed to a trickle in March.

That’s when he lost his job. And while he has some health insurance through temporary work for his union this month, he’s worried about what he’ll do after that.

“I’m rationing out heart pills,” said Arceneaux, who has a heart condition, high blood pressure and kidney problems. “Unfortunately with this situation that’s what I’m forced to do.”

Wilfred Arceneaux worked at an airport restaurant at Hartsfield-Jackson International until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and he was laid off.
Wilfred Arceneaux worked at an airport restaurant at Hartsfield-Jackson International until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and he was laid off.

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

During normal times, more than 63,000 people work at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. About 40% are airline employees and 13% have government jobs from the city and federal agencies including the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection.

The remainder, or nearly half, are contract workers who do everything from restaurant to janitorial work and wheelchair services to cleaning airplanes. And they haven’t enjoyed the same job protections as employees at airlines like Delta Air Lines, which received billions of dollars in federal stimulus funding in return for not laying off workers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, more than 5,500 workers for airport and airline contractors have faced furloughs or layoffs, according to notices filed with the Georgia Department of Labor by in-flight and Sky Club caterers, rental car companies, ground handlers and security companies. Other workers saw hours slashed.

As airline traffic recovered slightly, some contractors called employees back to work. And sanitation jobs got a boost as Hartsfield-Jackson ramped up efforts to keep travelers safe from the virus. ABM Aviation, a contractor whose workers clean terminals and airplane cabins, furloughed 362 of its more than 800 employees at the airport. Last fall, it called all of them back to work.

A cleaning crew wipes down a Delta Air Lines counter at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
A cleaning crew wipes down a Delta Air Lines counter at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But passenger counts are still only about half what they were before the pandemic, based on traffic at TSA checkpoints nationwide. And Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said he expects travel demand to remain depressed for months more until vaccines become widely available.

In-flight caterer Gate Gourmet recently said it plans to cut another 351 jobs in Georgia in February, after filing notices for about 2,500 furloughs or layoffs in the state last year.

Initial job cuts came as Delta cut in-flight food and beverage service to a minimum due to COVID-19 — handing out snack bags with a miniature bottle of water and a bag of Cheez-Its or similar snack.

Delta still has thousands of surplus employees on its own payroll, so it reassigned some of its flight attendants to assemble the snack bags. Delta also said it’s shifting in-flight catering to new contractors.

Delta itself has pared back its staff, with thousands of employees taking voluntary unpaid leave, buyouts or early retirements. But the Atlanta-based airline has avoided involuntary furloughs.

“It always seems it’s the low-wage workers that get the brunt of what happens,” said Chris Baumann, vice president of Workers United, which represents airport cleaners who clean the Atlanta airport terminal for about $9 an hour.

Rodney Watts, an overnight warehouse supervisor for concessionaire HMSHost at Hartsfield-Jackson, has been furloughed since mid-March. His team provided food supplies for all of HMSHost’s restaurants and eateries, but he said “the only way overnight staff can come back is if the airport is fully running.”

Watts has Type II diabetes, and has been paying for his insulin out of pocket. “A lot of people are suffering,” Watts said. “By the grace of God I’ve been managing.”

Some businesses around metro Atlanta are hiring, such as warehouses that handle e-commerce orders. They also offer better wages than some airport jobs. But many require a drive outside the city and aren’t accessible by MARTA like the airport is. Many low-paid airport workers don’t own cars.

According to a U.S. Treasury Department spokesperson, the rollout of the Payroll Support Program to protect aviation industry jobs and keep workers employed focused first on the largest employers to help stabilize the industry and support as many jobs as possible.

That meant much of the initial rounds of funding — billions of dollars — went to the nation’s biggest airlines. In the first round of CARES Act funding for airlines, passenger carriers got $25 billion, while $3 billion went to “certain contractors” in the aviation industry.

Travelers wearing face masks make their way at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, July 2, 2020.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Travelers wearing face masks make their way at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday, July 2, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Contractors waited for weeks before they got deals finalized for their subsidies — and in the meantime many of them laid off workers.

In the latest round of funding that lasts through March 2020, airlines are getting $15 billion while contractors are getting $1 billion.

Airlines are some of the most influential businesses in the country and their industry group, Airlines for America, has a regular lobbying presence in Washington, D.C.

“The airlines are extremely powerful and very well connected to Congress, the Administration, whether Republican or Democratic,” said Veronique de Rugy, senior fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank. Contractors, she added, “don’t have anything near as powerful as what the airlines and their employees” have.

While contractors received a sliver of federal aid, they have been relied on heavily by the airline industry. In early 2020, before the pandemic hit and when Delta had about 90,000 in-house employees, CEO Bastian said “we probably have at least another 90,000 of contractors that provide support, whether it’s at (contractor Delta Global Services) or catering or fueling or wheelchair services around the world.”

Among contractor employees are pilots and flight attendants on many Delta Connection flights, which are operated by regional carriers. One former Delta Connection airline, Atlanta-based ExpressJet, shut down entirely last year, causing 297 job losses, according to a notice filed with the Georgia Department of Labor.

Airport guests crowd the North Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson  International Airport in Atlanta on Monday, November 23, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.co)
Airport guests crowd the North Domestic Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on Monday, November 23, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.co)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Delta, with the excess employees it must keep, has been looking at insourcing more jobs such as wheelchair handling, aircraft servicing, cargo handling and fueling. That could mean even more workers at contractors lose their jobs to keep Delta employees on the payroll.

“A lot of people don’t look at contractors (as) part of the airline industry,” said Michael Ferebee, who handled passengers in wheelchairs with disabilities for contractor Delta Global Services, now known as Unifi, before losing his job in March. But workers for contractors “all have families. Everybody is impacted.”

Hartsfield-Jackson had only about 37 of its 347 food and beverage, retail and other concessions open in mid-April. About 200 concessions were open by the end of last year — a big improvement, but still nowhere close to normal.

Robert Davis was a bartender at Café Intermezzo when he was furloughed March 17 after ten years at the airport. The café on Concourse B is still closed. Davis said his health insurance continued through last year, but now he’s worried about what to do for health care going forward.

He has been finding one-off bartending gigs and has started day trading, but “it’s still a struggle,” Davis said. “I’m trying to find something I can do full-time to get health care.”

Thousands of travelers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on the day before Thanksgiving 2020. But due to COVID-19, crowds were about half what they normally are.
Thousands of travelers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on the day before Thanksgiving 2020. But due to COVID-19, crowds were about half what they normally are.

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Davis got help from United Way to cover some of his rent payments, and exhausted the extension on his car loan. “So now I’m just trying to maintain, hold it down,” Davis said. “How well I can hustle — that’s what it’s all about.”

Not everyone at reopened shops and restaurants was called back to work, since some eateries shifted to lower capacity because of less customer traffic and to allow for social distancing in tight airport stalls.

Arceneaux said the airport restaurant where he was a cocktail server is open, but with pared-down staff, and he’s still out out of work. “I have not heard nothing from them.”

Arceneaux worked for four years at Mustard Seed BBQ in Concourse D. He thought he would be out of work “for maybe six months,” and then return to his job at the airport by wintertime.

With that hope dashed, he applied for some other jobs, “but a majority of them, their (health) insurance doesn’t kick in for like a year,” Arceneaux said.

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