Airlines are carrying only a fraction of the passengers they did before the coronavirus pandemic struck, but thousands of airline catering workers are still on the job, preparing meals, packaging snack boxes, filling carts with drinks — and loading them on planes flying all over the world.
This largely hidden workforce, made up primarily of immigrants and people of color, many of whom can’t afford health insurance, is at great risk of contracting the virus, according to one of the unions that represent them. Which means the passengers they’re feeding could be at higher risk, too.
At least 74 of the nearly 14,000 national Unite Here members who work for LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, the two largest airline catering companies in the country, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to union estimates. Nine have died. In Boston, there have been 15 confirmed cases, including a woman from Revere who died and a woman who spent two weeks on a ventilator at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In fact, Sky Chefs workers at Logan International Airport are getting infected and hospitalized at much higher rates than any other group of Local 26 members still working in hotels, dining halls, and at the convention center field hospital, said president Carlos Aramayo. This is in part because the largely Black and brown workers at the airport have historically had limited access to health care, he said, which means they tend to have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease and are therefore at greater risk of severe infection.
These workers are also low-paid subcontractors whose employer-sponsored health insurance is more expensive than any other group represented by Local 26, Aramayo noted, and as a result they are far more likely to be uninsured and less likely to seek medical care.
Some are on MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, but others make too much money to qualify. (The median Sky Chefs wage at Logan is $13.80 an hour.)
This combination of factors puts workers in a “particularly dangerous situation on the front lines of this crisis,” Aramayo said.
And these workers aren’t just in danger themselves, union officials point out. The products they handle go on planes that fly around the world, creating the potential of spreading disease far and wide.
“The airlines can’t talk about the safety of their planes without talking about their supply chains, and we’re part of the supply chain," said D. Taylor, president of Unite Here.
Both catering companies said safety was their top priority.
“We have developed and implemented comprehensive safety measures throughout all our facilities to safeguard our employees against health risks," Sky Chefs said in a statement. “We continuously and constantly monitor the ever-changing situation by updating and enforcing our safety measures as recommended by the CDC and local health authorities.”
Gate Gourmet is going “above and beyond” requirements to keep workers safe, the company said, including conducting enhanced health screenings and temperature checks on employees before they enter its facilities and providing gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer.
But safety precautions vary widely between airports, the union said. Some workers have had to provide their own sanitizer, while others have worked with bandannas wrapped around their faces.
In Boston, where the Sky Chefs workforce has dwindled to about 50 from about 345, the company has started providing masks and moved workers apart, employees said, but for some it was too little, too late.
Mercy Valencia got so sick she ended up on a ventilator for two weeks. The company never told Valencia, 59, that any of her co-workers had previously tested positive, said her daughter, Magaly Guillen, and she went to Walmart shortly before her symptoms appeared — something she might not have done had she known she was exposed.
Valencia lives with a family in Chelsea, helping out with child care while the parents work overnight, and all five of them also tested positive, Guillen said. Valencia is improving, her daughter said, but the family is afraid to have her come back. Guillen called the company “very selfish” for not informing employees about sick co-workers, saying Sky Chefs was “thinking about ... money and not the life of the employee.”
Maria Solano, 55, worked in close proximity with Valencia, as well as another person who tested positive, and earlier this month, Solano started feeling sick, too. “I had a bad headache, my throat hurt, my body hurt, my ears hurt,” she said in Spanish, through a translator — but her temperature wasn’t high enough to get tested.
Solano is feeling better, but she opted to be laid off. And until her first unemployment check arrives, “my accounts are at zero,” she said.
As the number of people flying has dipped dramatically — down 96 percent daily compared to this time last year, according to Bloomberg estimates — airline catering companies have reduced their workforces accordingly. About 30 percent of Gate Gourmet and Sky Chefs employees, about 8,000 workers, are still on the job, according to Unite Here — preparing food and beverages, loading them on planes, and maintaining equipment.
American Airlines, one of dozens of airlines served by the two subcontractors at Logan, said it has verified that the catering companies’ pandemic response plans meet CDC guidelines and that they are meeting food safety standards. On shorter flights, the airline has eliminated food purchases and meal service and is offering only water and canned beverages on request.
United Airlines, which also contracts with the catering companies, said it was providing masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer when possible and increasing cleaning in customer and employee areas.
Long before the pandemic, Unite Here had been pushing the catering contractors to pay at least $15 an hour and offer more affordable health insurance, and last summer workers voted to authorize a strike. Nationwide, employees of Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet have to pay more than $500 a month for employer-provided family health insurance premiums, according to the union. A quarter of the workforce chooses not to pay and is uninsured altogether.
Yan Huan Chen, a 10-year Gate Gourmet employee at San Francisco International Airport, can’t afford her company’s health insurance plan, so she pays $345 a month for subsidized coverage through California’s health care exchange. Chen accompanies food to planes bound for Tokyo and Sydney and coordinates with flight attendants onboard. And she’s worried. Five people in her kitchen have tested positive, according to her union, including one who spent more than a week on a ventilator.
Gate Gourmet is now distributing face masks and taking workers’ temperatures, Chen said. But one mask a day isn’t enough, she said, and workers frequently run out of hand sanitizer.
Not working isn’t an option for Chen, 36, who is the sole provider for her 10-year-old daughter and who also helps out her elderly parents.
“That’s why I force myself to face these kinds of dangers,” she said in Cantonese, through a translator.
At the three New York-area airports, at least 40 airline catering employees have tested positive, according to the union, and six have died. Oscar Garcia, a 77-year-old Sky Chefs employee at John F. Kennedy International Airport, has come in contact with several infected or exposed co-workers, including a man he carpools with whose mother died of COVID-19. A cook in his kitchen died from the virus a few weeks ago.
Around the same time, Garcia started feeling so ill he could barely get out of bed — short of breath, with a sore throat. He can’t afford health insurance, he said, but even if he could, he’s too scared to go seek treatment. So after two days at home, he went back to work.
Garcia, a 27-year veteran who cleans the carts loaded onto planes, now wears a mask while he works. He wears two pairs of gloves and changes them every hour.
Garcia is afraid every day, and yet he keeps showing up.
“I prefer to keep working,” he said, “because it’s what I’m used to.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.