Fed Up With Grueling Shifts and Chronic Understaffing, Sky Harbor Restaurant Workers Are Striking

Katya Schwenk
A Sky Harbor worker speaks at Wednesday's strike
Before dawn on Wednesday morning, at the start of the 3 a.m. shift, union employees at cafes and restaurants at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport walked off the job.

It was a tipping point, those workers say. Since the onset of the pandemic, the foodservice establishments at Sky Harbor managed by the company HMS Host have been severely understaffed. Workers at the picket line on Wednesday described the harsh conditions they have endured over the last year: Mandatory 12-hour shifts, harassment from customers, and management that’s stretched thin.

Most days, Matthew Vargas arrives to work at a Starbucks in Sky Harbor at 3 in the morning. His shift is scheduled to end before noon. But, in recent months, Vargas has been forced to stay on the job until late in the afternoon for shifts that exceed 12 hours, to make up for low staffing. “Two weeks ago, I did a week straight” of those shifts, he told Phoenix New Times at the strike on Wednesday.

click to enlarge Matthew Vargas, a barista at a Sky Harbor Starbucks. - KATYA SCHWENK
Matthew Vargas, a barista at a Sky Harbor Starbucks.
Katya Schwenk

“I do not have time to be a person,” he said. He showed up to the strike on his lone day off this week.

The staffing problems at Sky Harbor began last year, when HMS Host — which operates more than two dozen restaurants at the airport, including Starbucks, Shake Shack, and Barrio Cafe (the latter is not affiliated with the 16th Street restaurant of the same name) — laid off the majority of its workers after the pandemic ground travel to a halt. Travel has more or less resumed, but the company has been unable to reach full staffing capacity. Per the workers’ union, Unite Here Local 11, staffing levels remain below 70 percent, despite periodic promises from HMS Host that it is hiring more employees.

“The workers have come to us and told us that this is just intolerable,” said Beatriz Topete, the union’s organizing director. “Their working conditions are unbearable.”

For more than a year, lines at Sky Harbor’s stores have stretched unusually long due to the staffing issues, snaking through the halls of the airport.

“Customers wait in line for 30 minutes. So they’re angry when they get to you,” said Victoria Stahl, another Starbucks barista at Sky Harbor. Throughout the workday, she deals with agitated, frustrated customers, all while doing the jobs of “two or three people” at the cafe, she said.

“It takes a toll on you,” she said. “You just kind of break down.”

HMS Host, by contrast, is doing just fine: Its sales figures have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels this year, the city says.

Over the last year, the company has insisted that it is trying to hire — throwing job fairs, doing outreach — and simply hasn’t seen enough interest. In a statement to New Times Wednesday, an HMS spokesperson reiterated this: The company "is dealing with the same severe staffing crisis as are other employers throughout the US," the spokesperson wrote, and was "proud to have opened almost all of our restaurants and returned many of our valued associates to work." The statement did not mention or acknowledge the strike.

Multiple workers told New Times on Wednesday that they had seen, over and over again, trainees arrive on the job and quit almost immediately, once they saw the reality of workplace conditions.

“It’s like clockwork,” said Ari Berrong-Huber, who works as a host at a Sky Harbor restaurant. “Because it’s just too much work for one person.”

Over the last year, the city of Phoenix — which contracts with HMS Host for hospitality services — has put intermittent pressure on the company to treat its employees better, whenever the company has come to the city to request rent relief and other support. But, so far, little has improved.

“They’re a company that would rather have a skeleton crew working than take care of — not only of the workers — but of the travelers, people that are not getting the service they deserve,” Phoenix councilmember Betty Guardado told New Times. The workers on strike had her full support, she said: “I applaud their courage.”

Guardado, like the union, blames HMS for the continued staffing shortage. “In order to get people back to work, in a pandemic, you need to make sure that you pay them enough,” Guardado said.

Wages are low at the company. “I only make $13 an hour to do five people’s jobs,” Berrong-Huber said. He can’t afford the health insurance plan offered by HMS, he said, and has hardly been able to take time off.

Workers also are frustrated that the company is refusing to shutter some of its establishments and fully staff the others, opting instead to stretch staff thin across the airport. It has slowly opened most of its establishments in Sky Harbor, even without full staffing. “When the businesses come back, we say, well, bring back the workers and staff them appropriately,” said Topete, the union organizer. “Or don’t have them open.”

Topete said Wednesday morning that the union had not yet heard a response from the company to the strike. But workers told New Times that even so, the sense that the broader public was listening to their concerns was gratifying.

“We have people who are actually listening to us, and hearing what we’re saying,” Stahl said. “It’s the first time that’s happened in a really long time for us. We’re happy, and we’re very hopeful.”