Hundreds of Denver International Airport janitors walked off work Friday, striking for higher pay and lower tax workloads.
Watchmen earn $17 an hour from their employer, DIA Contractor Flagship Aviation Services.
“It is very difficult for me to pay my rent and keep food on the table to support my family. I want a living wage,” Amer Garsark, who has been at the job for 20 years, told The Denver Post at a rally outside the airport’s main terminal.
Activists said that when colleagues resigned over the years, the rest were forced to bear the burden – on top of the need to clean up more than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other facilities, the airport has remained open throughout the pandemic.
“They put the workload on us because no one comes,” said 13-year-old veteran Jasmine Kayani. “They can’t get new employees for $17 an hour, so they put a heavy workload on us with very little pay.”
Both were part of an overwhelming majority – 99.6%, the union SEIU Local 105 reported – with about 250 watchmen voting to authorize the strike. In total, this union unit represents 350 DIA watchmen, the vast majority of the custodial staff at the airport.
Flagship Aviation Services has not responded to multiple requests for comment this week by both phone and email. Flagship’s contract with the union expired on Thursday.
DIA spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa said the airport “is not entering because it is between our contractor, the flagship, and their janitor union.” She added Friday morning, “From an airport standpoint, we have a plan in place to do the cleaning and all that, and so far it’s doing great.”
In a statement, the airport urged both sides to resolve their differences expeditiously.
Flagship has one of the most lucrative contracts at DIA – a $183 million deal with City that lasts three years. The company is based in California and serves airports in Phoenix and other cities including Orlando and Tampa, Fla. It began contract work with the DIA in March, taking over for the San Antonio, Texas-based ISS Facility Services, which oversaw cleanup services. For the entire 26-year history of DIA and before that at Stapleton International Airport.
The ISS had to face recurring complaints by its sub-contractors over the performance and complaints that it was paying them too little. The flagship deal cost 59% more per year than the ISS paid, partly due to increased profit costs, new performance standards, and incentives for workers.
The ink has only dried on DIA’s contract with Flagship Aviation Services, based in San Jose, Calif., which won the airport watchdog contract in a competitive bidding process. It absorbed employees from the former contractor on 1 March.
Workers at Friday’s walkout said the overall situation had deteriorated since the flagship took office. Ron Ruggiero, president of SEIU Local 105, said that in 28 years he “has not seen workers angry at how they have been treated.”
He said he was “very confident” that the two sides would reach a resolution, but declined to specify what pay level the union is seeking at the bargaining table.
“The fundamental issue,” he said, “is whether these workers have been called heroes for 18, 19 months by everyone – business leaders, politicians, the press – and they need to be treated the same way in this contract. … well, people. need to be paid as they are necessary and heroic.”
Kiani said the fair wage should be at least $19 or $20 an hour.
When asked how long the workers are ready for the strike, he said, “As long as it takes time.”
Denver Post reporter John Murray contributed.