This article has been updated to reflect Friday’s national vote.
If you still get snacks, meals or beverages when you fly, you may have María Sanchez to thank.
Sanchez, 57, has worked for airline catering company LSG Sky Chefs for six and a half years, packaging food in a cooler chilled at 40 degrees to keep food safe. She earns $11.10 an hour — less than the county-mandated living wage paid to other workers at Miami International Airport.
Miami Sky Chefs primarily contracts with American Airlines.
Sanchez says it’s simply not enough to live on. She and 624 other Miami Sky Chefs employees are seeking to strike if their employer won’t raise their salaries to a minimum of $15 an hour.
In a two-day vote that ended Friday, workers at Miami Sky Chefs overwhelmingly voted to authorize their union, Unite Here, to request a strike. The vote drew a 72 percent turnout out of 874 employees and, among those who voted, 99.8 percent supported a strike.
Rachel Gumpert, the press secretary for Unite Here, said Miami is a key city for the national campaign because it is an airline hub.
And nationwide, workers employed by Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet officially authorized their unions to request a strike Friday. More than 11,000 employees across 28 cities voted over the course of two weeks, according to their unions.
Unite Here will request a release to strike from the National Mediation Board, which must approve any strike request by airport and airline employees, later this summer. From there, the process could take months.
“Catering workers refuse to sit back and watch airlines like American, Delta and United earn billions in profits while workers barely scrape by,” Unite Here International President D. Taylor said in a statement. “Now is the time for one job to be enough in the airline catering industry.”
Workers are seeking a $15 salary floor and more affordable health insurance. Unite Here said that currently, the average hourly salary for a Miami Sky Chefs worker is $12.25. And only 19 percent of employees were enrolled in company health insurance in 2018.
“We have workers who have been there over a decade who still don’t make $12 an hour,” Wendi Walsh, the secretary-treasurer for Unite Here Local 355 in South Florida, said. “So you know these workers don’t have a chance in Miami.”
Other airport employees are covered by the living wage requirement passed by Miami-Dade County in 1999. The ordinance covers businesses contracting with Miami-Dade, including businesses providing services at Miami International Airport. Last year, Miami-Dade commissioners extended that requirement for employees working in shops, restaurants and other vendors at MIA.
Sky Chefs is exempt from that rule, though. D. Marcus Braswell Jr., who was appointed to the county’s living wage commission, explained that Sky Chefs only has a permit with the county, not a contract. The company’s permittee status means it’s only bound by Florida’s minimum wage, which is currently $8.46. That’s about five dollars below the living wage requirement.
“I think that the spirit of our law is violated,” Braswell said. “We are charged with making sure that public monies go to companies that are paying a living wage.”
Miami International Airport declined to comment.
Miami-Dade District 5 Commissioner Eileen Higgins said that when companies don’t pay a living wage, people beyond the companies and employees end up indirectly covering the wage difference.
“All we’re doing is putting people in line for food stamps, in line for assisted housing, in line for medical assistance, in line at the emergency room,” she said. “Society is paying these costs. The private companies are not.”
Workers are also seeking affordable, quality healthcare. Sky Chefs offers healthcare for its employees, but it costs more than $50 a week and many Miami workers say it’s too expensive for their current salary.
Unite Here is currently in federal mediation with Sky Chefs as the two negotiate new contracts.
In an emailed statement to the Miami Herald, Sky Chefs said they are currently in negotiations with union representatives and are “continuing to negotiate in good faith.”
“Wages, as well as other benefits, including vacations, uniforms and company provided meals, as well as health and welfare, are subject to the collective bargaining process between our company and their union representatives,” Sky Chefs said in its statement.
Gumpert said Sky Chefs has not offered competitive wages.
In a follow-up email, Sky Chefs said that is “premature” to discuss a strike and that the company is focused on negotiating a new contract.
David Margulies, a Sky Chefs spokesman, questioned in a phone call with the Miami Herald why workers don’t simply leave if unhappy with the working conditions.
“If they’re not getting paid enough, why are they still working there?” Margulies said. “And if it’s such a terrible job, why have you been there for 10 years?”
Sanchez said she’s stayed with Sky Chefs because it’s steady work with a consistent paycheck. And she’s able to speak Spanish, or not speak at all, while she works.
“It’s a job that opens its arms to you to enter and work because it’s a job that not everyone in the world does,” Sanchez said in Spanish.
She said she’s prepared to work another 10 years before retiring. Her partner, Alberto Arencibia, still works at 70 to make ends meet. Together, they support Sanchez’s 7-year-old grandson, Adonnys.
On Thursday, Sanchez offered blue “I voted yes” temporary tattoos to every person who came to vote on a potential strike.
Margarette Rifin, 57, voted yes. She said she’s been with Sky Chefs for 30 years. She started out making $4 an hour and now makes $12.
“We need better salary; doesn’t matter what it takes,” Rifin said. “I have to get what I need. Because I work hard.”
Jorel Janvier has worked with Sky Chefs for most of his adult life and is now just four years from retirement. But he said he’s voting yes to secure better wages and healthcare for younger Sky Chefs workers. Because even after 28 years, Janvier said he doesn’t make enough to live in a place as expensive as Miami.
“My cousin asks me how much I make. I can’t tell him,” Janvier said. “You know why? It’s too low.”
Unite Here is requesting at least a $15 wage for catering employees nationwide, with the potential for employees to earn more as they spend more years on the job.
But workers in Miami like Sonia Toledo are concerned they will still need more.
“We’re asking for at least $15 an hour. Which isn’t enough. Fifteen dollars is still not enough to live in Miami,” Toledo said in Spanish.
Toledo has been with Sky Chefs for 15 years but has spent 28 in the in-flight service industry. She currently supports both herself and her husband on her salary, which has resulted in difficult decisions — like choosing between housing payments and healthcare.
She said workers need at least $20 an hour to live.
“Miami is a city of the rich with a salary of the poor,” Toledo said.
Even with an overwhelming vote to approve a request, Miami Sky Chefs workers are potentially months away from a legal strike, if they get released. In the meantime, Miami employees will have to work and wait. Rifin is prepared to do just that.
“Doesn’t matter what it takes; I’m gonna be waiting for the strike,” Rifin said.