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Health-care costs pinch some airport workers 

click to enlarge Darryl "Willie" Jones, who works in food service at the airport, said he earns too much for his daughter to qualify for Hoosier Healthwise Medicaid assistance, but not enough to cover insurance premiums for his work-sponsored plan, so he and his daughter are uninsured right now. - MARK LEE
  • Darryl "Willie" Jones, who works in food service at the airport, said he earns too much for his daughter to qualify for Hoosier Healthwise Medicaid assistance, but not enough to cover insurance premiums for his work-sponsored plan, so he and his daughter are uninsured right now.
  • Mark Lee


Donna Byrer is a bartender at Indy 500 Grill at the Indianapolis International Airport. A single mom of a 5 year-old boy, Byrer switched to the airport from more typical bartending jobs, enticed by the family-friendly shifts that start her workday as early as 8:30 a.m. When I express surprise at the need for a bright-and-early bartender, she laughs. "There are three types of people who drink here in the morning: Those who fly all night, those who are afraid to fly, and those who just drink in the mornings."

Byrer appreciates the perpetual flow of the airport traffic bringing new people to her bar stools every day. She has served celebrities and traveling executives, consoled military moms away from their families, and keeps in touch with many of her former customers by Facebook.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the airport to our community. The terminal that opened in 2008 cost $1.1. billion to build, the largest civic development project in Indianapolis history. The Indianapolis Airport Authority, the municipal corporation that operates the airport, estimates the facility's economic impact on Central Indiana exceeds $3 billion each year. Byrer is one of 10,000 people who come to work at the airport each day.

Many of them work at restaurants and bars with familiar names like Shapiro's, Harry & Izzy's and Champps, which in turn are operated by large travel food companies with unfamiliar names like Areas USA. Byrer works for SSP America, which operates the Indy 500 Grill. Areas and SSP negotiated contracts with the labor union UNITE HERE, which represents their non-management employees at the airport.

"I can honestly say that I am happy to come to work each day," Byrer says. But that does not mean she is pleased with the current conditions. SSP America pays her just $4 per hour. Applying the bartender's blunt charm to microeconomic analysis, she smiles and says, "That just sucks."Even when tips are added in, Byrer makes far below the estimated $35,000 annual income that the MIT-based Living Wage Project estimates is necessary for a family of two in central Indiana. (The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 per hour, a number that has not changed in 22 years. Often, tips are not enough to raise a worker's salary over the poverty line. Waiters and waitresses have a poverty rate double that of other workers in the U.S., according to the 2011 analysis, "Waiting for Change," by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Wage and Employment Dynamics.)

Byrer is a member of the union. But she admits to ambivalence about whether it has been effective in advocating for the airport's tipped employees. She can't afford the company-provided health insurance, in part because SSP America refuses to deduct the premiums from tipped employees' paychecks before taxes. Byrer hurt her back last summer and had to go to the emergency room for treatment. Now, she struggles to make payments on a $2,000 hospital bill. Her back still causes her problems, and she has been referred to a specialist and a physical therapist for treatment. She can't pay the fees charged by either one. The union's contract with SSP America expires year, and Byrer will be closely watching the discussions about health insurance.

click to enlarge Donna Byrer will be watching upcoming negotiations between UNITE HERE and food service companies at the airport to see if they can make progress on making health-care costs more affordable for hourly employees.
  • Donna Byrer will be watching upcoming negotiations between UNITE HERE and food service companies at the airport to see if they can make progress on making health-care costs more affordable for hourly employees.

Darryl "Willie" Jones came to his airport job for family reasons, too. After the mother of his 8 year-old daughter, Aaliyah, died unexpectedly last year, Jones suddenly found himself a single dad. The evening hours of his job as a shuttle bus driver prevented Jones from caring for his daughter after school, so he took a lower-paying job as a day-shift cook at the airport. Now working at Areas USA-operated Giorgio's Pizzeria, Jones' daily routine begins at 4:30 a.m. He gets himself ready for work and his daughter ready for school, then drives to her elementary school two counties away from their home. ("I promised to let her stay in this school, and she needs that stability right now," he says.) Then Jones rushes to start his 7:30 a.m. shift at the airport. After work, he hustles back to pick up Aaliyah after school—often turning down much-needed overtime opportunities—and brings her back home for dinner and homework.

Both father and daughter still mourn for Aaliyah's mother.I ask Jones if he ever had doubts about whether he could pull off the single working-dad challenge. "Only every day," he says. He stops talking for a minute and looks away. "For so many reasons, I just wish she was still here with us."

Jones started working at the airport after the union was already in place. At first, he did not think much about his union membership. Then, just a few months into the job, he found himself in a dispute with a fellow employee. "It was a he said/she said thing, and I didn't do anything wrong. But my job was on the line," he says. A union representative spoke with management, and Jones kept his job. "I found out that being part of a union means they can't just push us around, that they have to give issues like this a second look."

UNITE HERE members and organizers say there are other benefits, too. Unionized workers are paid a dollar or two more per hour than comparable non-union workers at the airport. The union members receive annual raises and say they get more and better hours than their non-union counterparts. For most companies, a unionized workforce provides staffing stability and more experienced workers. (An Areas USA human resources executive declined to be interviewed for this article, and SSP America did not respond to messages seeking comment.)

But workers like Byrer and Jones are still struggling to get by on their current wages. Access to healthcare is a huge issue for most of the union members. Adding family members to the employer-provided health plans triggers a big increase in premiums. Jones said he earns too much for his daughter to qualify for Hoosier Healthwise Medicaid assistance, but not enough to cover insurance premiums for his work-sponsored plan, so he and his daughter are uninsured right now. In the contract negotiations coming up, the workers are aiming for a better deal.

The workers are not the only ones with a stake in those negotiations, says Pat Andrews, "Had Enough Indy" blogger and activist in the Decatur Township area south of the airport. "This is our government running the airport," she says. "The airport is generally known for having low-paying jobs, and you would hope our Indianapolis Airport Authority could do more to address that."

Byrer agrees that good pay and benefits for airport workers are in the community's best interest. "We are the first ones that people see when they come to Indianapolis, and the last ones they see before they leave," she says. "If we are all happy and committed to doing a great job here, I'd like to think everyone benefits."

Fran Quigley is a clinical professor at IU McKinney School of Law, where he directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic. He is a former news editor at NUVO and remains a regular contributor.

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