Striking Phoenix Union Claims Black Baristas Earn Less Than White Workers

Sky Harbor retail workers are still on strike over wages and benefits.
Sky Harbor retail workers are still on strike over wages and benefits. Katya Schwenk
Slinging caramel lattes for rushed travelers is hardly a lucrative career but even less so if you're not white.

Retail workers at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix claim that the median hourly wage for Black baristas across airports operated by HMS Host was $1.85 less than their white co-workers, according to a survey of salary data collected in 2019. Black restaurant workers there earn about $18,973 each year including tips, compared to $28,513 for white workers. After the coronavirus pandemic began, annual wages plummeted to $16,215 for white workers and even less for people of color, according to the union.

Unite Here Local 11 is now pushing for an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into systematic racial disparities in hiring, promotion, and compensation for employees of the Phoenix airport concessionaire HMS Host.

Both the company and union agree there's a pay gap, but the reason why is where they diverge.

HMS Host, which operates about a dozen stores from Starbucks to Blanco Tacos & Tequila, claims the reason people of color earn less is because of seniority status. The company claims that the union enshrined such racial disparity when it signed a collective bargaining agreement where wages depended on tenure.

Unite Here workers in Phoenix have been on strike over wages and benefits since before the bustling Thanksgiving holiday.

click to enlarge Some Sky Harbor restaurants were shuttered as workers walked off the job. - KATYA SCHWENK
Some Sky Harbor restaurants were shuttered as workers walked off the job.
Katya Schwenk

The union is banking that Patricia Miner, the top supervisory investigator in the Phoenix EEOC office will open a commissioner charge, a special type of investigation.

The union claims that white workers were nearly 10 times more likely than Black workers to be bartenders and servers but also represent the majority of management. And that a Black man was blocked from being considered to work in the front of a restaurant and was relegated to the back of the house instead until the union filed a grievance for him.

HMS Host rebuffs the union's claims about racial discrimination in the workplace and notes that more than 85 percent of its workers are still on the job despite the strike.

The company claims its proposal offers jobs upward of $15 an hour which includes health insurance which covers 90 percent of employee costs for $13 each week.

"HMSHost also denies the baseless claims of racial discrimination over wages," according to a company statement. "Those wages are determined by the collective bargaining agreement as agreed to by HMSHost and the Union itself."

Editors Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the union survey is across Starbucks workers at various airports operated by HMS Host, not just Phoenix Sky Harbor.
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Kristen Mosbrucker is a journalist who hails from the Northeast but has spent much of her career over the past decade across the South. She has interviewed everyone from business executives to homeless folks. She's covered business on the Texas-Mexico border in deep South Texas for the McAllen Monitor, technology and the defense industry in San Antonio for American City Business Journals, and the petrochemical industry in Louisiana for The Advocate newspaper. Early in her career, she spearheaded hyperlocal community news coverage for an NPR member station in Philadelphia.