Under pressure to cut costs as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag down air travel, United Airlines is considering outsourcing its catering operations.
A decision hasn’t been made, airline officials insist, but the labor union representing the airline’s kitchen workers — including at least 400 in Denver — is already crying foul.
The Unite Here union estimates it represents 2,500 United catering employees across the country including 500 in Denver. Airline representatives meanwhile say United’s Denver catering operations has 400 workers today, down from 550 a few years ago.
United informed kitchen staff that it had put out a request for proposals from third-party catering companies on Jan. 15. A pivot to a third-party contractor now, after Congress provided United with $5 billion to pay employees during the pandemic through the CARES Act alone, is a violation of the public trust, union members say.
“You know we’re taxpayers too. So we did pitch in a little bit to bail them out and they need to take that into consideration,” said Rose Medina, who has worked in United’s catering kitchen on the Denver International Airport grounds for more than two years.
The pandemic has crushed demand for air travel over the last year. United executive Janet Lamkin said the carrier was operating 80% of its 2019 schedule at DIA as of last week, a bright spot for the company. Still, Transportation Safety Administration numbers from this week show that traffic through airport security checkpoints across the country was down more than 48% compared to the same time in 2019.
United, which lost an estimated $7.7 billion last year, is on the lookout for ways to trim costs. The company furloughed more than 900 employees based out of DIA indefinitely last fall as the first round of federal payroll support dried up.
“Given the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on our business, United continues to explore ways to do things differently and become more efficient wherever we can — this (request for proposal) is part of that effort,” United officials said of the catering kitchens in a statement. “At this time, we have not made any decisions to move forward with a third-party.”
United is one of the few airlines that doesn’t already use contractors to provide in-flight food for passengers. In October 2018 the airline’s catering workers, spread across kitchens in Denver, Houston, Cleveland, Honolulu and Newark, N.J., voted to join the Unite Here.
More than two years later those workers still don’t have an initial contract ironed out with United, and, according to Medina, the airline appears to be no longer interested in talking after the RFP was announced.
Making $14.77 an hour more than two years after being hired, Medina said her main reason for working in the United kitchen is the benefits, including free airfare. That is especially true for co-workers who are immigrants, a significant chunk of the United catering staff. Even if she were to be hired by a replacement contractor, the loss of benefits would be a serious impact.
“It scares us all just to think that United wants to do this and we don’t know what our future is going to be,” Medina said.
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