Phoenix Airport Hospitality Workers Strike Just Before Thanksgiving

Sky Harbor hospitality workers went on strike Monday.
Sky Harbor hospitality workers went on strike Monday. Katya Schwenk
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport restaurant workers walked off the job Monday morning — the beginning of an indefinite strike amid stalled contract negotiations.

Just in time for the big holiday getaway, which is expected to rival prepandemic travel volumes.

For months, employees of HMS Host, a behemoth airport concessionaire that operates dozens of restaurants at the Phoenix airport, have been protesting their workplace conditions. Workers say that their benefits are scant and they haven't seen a raise in years.

In September, HMS Host workers went on strike for a day over severe understaffing. But Monday's strike marks the most serious action that the union, UNITE Here! Local 11, has taken. Last Thursday, 97% of workers voted in favor of the move.

As the airport bustled with holiday travel Monday, dozens of HMS Host workers marched outside the airport’s doors, hoisting signs and calling into bullhorns. Inside, two of the airport's Starbucks locations were left shuttered.

“I've just watched things just get progressively worse for employees,” said Regan Concepcion, a server at Barrio Cafe who has worked for the company for 17 years.

Concepcion and her colleagues are currently bargaining with HMS Host over a new contract. Negotiations have dragged on for more than four years, stalling over workers’ demands for improved healthcare benefits, wage increases, and pensions.

The length of negotiations, Concepcion told Phoenix New Times, has felt like “a slap in the face.”

“It shows that they really just don’t care about us,” she said.
click to enlarge Some Sky Harbor restaurants were shuttered on Monday as workers walked off the job. - KATYA SCHWENK
Some Sky Harbor restaurants were shuttered on Monday as workers walked off the job.
Katya Schwenk
Back in September, when HMS Host employees walked off the job for a day, workers told New Times that staffing had been stretched so thin that they were forced to take on 12-hour shifts.

Now, workers on the picket line say that the poor workplace conditions have continued, all while their wages have remained low. Employees who have been with the company for decades earn barely above minimum wage. In the middle of the pandemic, union leaders say, the company cut back on employees’ healthcare.

HMS Host, meanwhile, contests some of the union's claims.

In a statement that company spokesperson Shayna Iglesias provided to New Times, the company argues that it has offered workers 12% wage increases and a revised healthcare proposal.

“HMS Host has proposed best-in-class benefits and wage increases with enduring changes,” the statement reads. The strike, the company added, "only serves to hurt the traveling public and the HMS Host associates who continue to work during this difficult time.”

Workers say the benefits the company offers are hardly enough.

Lucia Salinas, who has worked for nearly two decades as a cook at the Cowboy Ciao restaurant, told New Times that under her current healthcare plan with HMS Host, she cannot afford to treat her psoriasis, a chronic skin disease.

After the company cut back its healthcare benefits, she said, the treatments she needed jumped to cost $1,000 a month. Salinas said she now travels to Mexico for her treatments — it’s cheaper than paying out-of-pocket in the U.S. for care.

"That's why I'm here," she said. "We feel like we're just numbers to them."

Some of HMS Host's restaurants will remain open, despite the understaffing. Others are being stocked, for now, with grab-and-go self-pay stations.

"I feel bad for the travelers," Salinas said. "But I hope they understand that it's because of us that they have good service. And, hopefully, they can support us, too."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk