SSP America has been running the airport’s concession stands since 2012, and according to its contract with Unite Here Local 11, the union that represents airport concessions employees, SSP is responsible for maintaining a safe work environment. However, workers say that their multiple complaints about the presence of rats and cockroaches in the kitchens of several popular restaurants have gone ignored.
"It just won't fly," Ginger Brown, a cashier with SSP told Phoenix New Times.
SSP’s contract with Unite Here Local 11 expired in May after the two organizations failed to come to an agreement for increasing wages and improving health benefits.
"Give us something to work with. Right now, $19 is not a living wage. Without customers' tips, I wouldn't be sitting where I'm at,” Brown added.
Bugs and vermin and feces, oh my!SSP workers first filed a complaint on Sept. 5 about the alleged presence of rats at the Dunkin' in Sky Harbor’s Terminal 4.
In the complaint to the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, workers said they spotted rats running through the kitchen and dining areas. One worker added that they were asked to clean what they suspected was rat feces.
“It doesn’t feel right,” Dunkin' barista Vanessa Ortega said in a press release. “We want to be in a clean and safe working environment in order to keep ourselves healthy and provide the best possible service to customers. All we want is for SSP America to do right by all of us and resolve this rodent problem.”
A second complaint, filed on Sept. 19, alleged that there were numerous cockroaches in the kitchen, storage rooms and seating areas of Pei Wei and Matt’s Big Breakfast. Both restaurants are operated by SSP.
"My son went to Four Peaks, and he found a cockroach in his drink," Brown told New Times. "I see them over at Matt's Big Breakfast, Pita Jungle, I've seen them all over, behind Dunkin' Donuts."
According to the complaint, workers reported finding cockroaches in cleaning buckets, ice machines and even in uncooked rice.
“The work environment described in this complaint is absolutely unacceptable,” said Susan Minato, co-president of Unite Here Local 11. “The city of Phoenix must take the health and safety risks to workers and customers seriously.”
A spokesperson for SSP could not be reached on Tuesday.
A worrisome trend at Sky Harbor
SSP employees are the third group of workers at the airport to take action against poor working conditions and low wages.
On Sept. 19, hundreds of Prospect Airport Services employees, an independent contracting company providing aviation support services, staged a peaceful protest against what they called “hellish working conditions” over the summer. Six union representatives and Prospect employees were arrested at the protest for refusing to obey commands from Phoenix police officers to vacate the premises.
SSP and Prospect employees have joined forces in protesting alongside United Airlines flight attendants who also are working on expired contracts.
Flying partners from across the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the union representing flight attendants, as well as their allies picketed at Sky Harbor and 18 other airports, on Oct. 26. The rallies came on the heels of United Airlines announcing record profits in the Pacific and Atlantic regions. According to a press release from the airline, United recorded $1.5 billion of pretax income in the third quarter of this year.
"It’s definitely gotten to the point where they seem to care less and less about the employees, flight attendants and the customers," United flight attendant Diane Cutaia said in October. "It’s all about the bottom line."
Cutaia is not alone in believing that working conditions at Sky Harbor have worsened recently. According to Victoria Stahl, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 11, the subpar working conditions are nothing 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.”