people wearing winter jackets walk in an oval around columns outside San Fransciso International Airport. In the foreground, one person carries a white sign on a wooden picket that obscures their face and reads "One job should be enough"
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 26: San Francisco International Airport food service workers carry signs as they strike outside of a terminal at the airport on Sept. 26, 2022, in San Francisco. Nearly 1,000 Unite Here Local No. 2 union workers at San Francisco International Airport walked off the job and went on strike early Monday morning as they fight for better wages. Many of the workers have had to take on second jobs to support their families. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As airline worker shortages and excess flying demands continue to increase travel turmoil across the nation’s airports, lounge workers are feeling the brunt of an industry plagued by understaffing, long hours, and insufficient pay. In New Jersey, Sodexo workers at Newark Liberty International Airport’s Lufthansa lounge are picketing for a new union contract with better working conditions and higher wages, while workers at JFK Airport, Boston’s Logan Airport, and Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport have taken similar measures to demand better working conditions. Meanwhile, Sodexo workers at the Delta and United Airlines lounges in Austin, Texas are demanding that the company agree to a neutral and fair process so workers can decide on unionization without fear. As airport lounge traffic continues to increase, workers say their services are needed more than ever and they deserve to be treated with dignity. 

The airline industry has continued to recover since countries lifted COVID-19 restrictions, with 2022 revenue now expected to reach 84% of 2019’s level and projected revenue for the year rising to $525 billion. However, contrasting the economic recovery are thousands of flight delays and cancellations, flight attendant harassment, and overall strenuous working conditions for all airline employees. Airport lounge workers report that flight delays make their jobs harder, as lounges fill up while travelers sometimes wait hours to board.

Workers at Newark’s Lufthansa lounge are fighting for a new contract with Sodexo after the contract with their previous employer, Compass, expired. In the coming months, Sodexo will also take over operations at JFK Airport and Newark’s British Airways, which are currently operated by Compass. According to a Unite Here spokesperson, there are no assumption agreements to continue those workers’ contracts.

“It gets overwhelming,” said Lamar Roper, a utility worker at the Sodexo-owned Lufthansa lounge in Newark International Airport. “Sodexo needs to hire more people. But they don’t tell anybody what they’re walking into.”

Roper, who has worked at the Sodexo-owned lounge for a year, said his working hours were initially 1-9:30 p.m. However, he regularly has to stay late at work until the last plane boards due to frequent flight delays. Once, he had to stay until 12:45 a.m.

“I can’t just clock out and leave,” Roper said. “I have to do the dishes whenever the last flight leaves, and that last flight could be delayed. It could be 30 minutes late, it could be an hour, two hours. They didn’t tell me that when I got the job.”

For many workers who don’t have a car or other form of transportation to get to work, this means having to wait even later for a bus to get back home or paying surge prices for an Uber ride. Roper, who does not have a car, finds himself in this position whenever he has to work late.

“I have no choice but to wait for the bus,” said Roper. “And then I could miss the bus and probably be waiting 30 more minutes.”

Roper currently makes $18.15 an hour, having received a $0.15 raise in a year, but says workers need more than that to account for understaffing and increased lounge occupancy. On average, Roper says they get about 400 customers a day, but the lounge space is small, and the floor is routinely slippery from a dishwasher and ice machine leak, with no anti-slip mats provided in the kitchen. During the summer, Roper slipped; luckily, he says, he could get back up, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be as lucky another time.

Last month, Sodexo workers at Dulles’ Lufthansa lounge, Boston Logan’s United and Lufthansa lounges, and Newark’s Lufthansa lounge held actions to alert travelers to the labor disputes and their demands for new union contracts, better working conditions, and higher wages. Workers at Logan and Dulles leafleted customers, and workers at Newark held a picket line at Terminal B, holding signs that read “Sodexo workers need a raise.”

“All the pain and pressure we go through—we deserve more,” said Roper. 

In Austin, Sodexo workers at the Delta and United lounges are demanding that the company agree to a neutral and fair process so workers can decide whether to join a union without facing intimidation or retaliation. Workers at the lounge leafleted customers on Oct. 10 to inform them of their growing concerns.

Kalvin Baker has been a bartender at the Austin International Airport Sodexo-owned United lounge for six months and has worked in the hospitality industry for 16 years. Recently, he has also taken on the added role of lounge supervisor. However, Baker is one of the Austin workers trying to get their union drive recognized by Sodexo, to no avail. The recognition is vital, Baker says, to ensure better pay and working conditions. 

“It can get busy with delays at any notice,” said Baker. “So when you think that you’re good as far as staffing, then you have a delay. All of a sudden as a bartender, I don’t move from behind the bar for four-to-five hours straight, and that can really be tough on your body.”

According to Baker, workers are not allowed to eat any of the lounge food or drink anything besides water, and, because of understaffing, they rarely get a break.

“They can’t hire anybody at this rate,” said Baker. “There’s a lot of people that quit when they start because they notice this job is not what they thought it was. They get there, and they realize they’re being exploited.”

As inflation continues to drive up the cost of living, workers like Baker say they can no longer afford to work a service industry job. Baker’s 1,000-square foot apartment went from $1,600 a month to $2,100 a month after an initial 13 month lease. In Austin, where there is no tenants’ bill of rights and few tenant protections, Baker and others are forced to comply with these rent spikes. Baker, who makes $15 an hour, said it takes two paychecks to make up his rent.

“I want to give everything to a company; I want to be loyal because I’m really good at what I do,” Baker said. “I have a lot to offer, and I am very valuable to this company. I just feel that there’s a lot of people who are valuable to this company, but they are getting exploited.”

Baker is also concerned that there is no human resources department or representative to whom he can voice complaints. During a particularly busy weekend, Baker said he had to ask his manager to call an extra worker to help out, bringing the total number of workers present in the lounge to three—one food runner, one cleaner, and himself—while there were over 400 guests throughout the day. Baker said he served 83 people at the bar, not including the soda and water he needed to provide the runner. At one point, one of the workers spilled scalding hot water on themselves and worried they would get fired for the injury. While Baker was helping ensure the worker was OK, 10 guests had accumulated at the bar.

“I’m the bartender, the supervisor, I’m taking care of guests, and this is a normal day,” said Baker. “I don’t get a break. It’s very challenging. You’re just flying at the seat of your pants.”

Baker isn’t alone. According to Baker, over 50% of workers at his lounge have signed a union card showing interest in joining one. On Oct. 5, Baker held a delegation with other workers to call for a response from Sodexo, but they have yet to respond.

“We just want the process to move forward without any intimidation,” Baker said. “Without fear of losing our jobs, we just want to be recognized.”

Update: A spokesperson from Sodexo reached out to Prism Thursday, Nov. 3. “Sodexo respects the right of our employees to choose to be represented by a Union,” the spokesperson said. “We are working with Unite Here to establish a national discussion forum to address strategic topics of mutual interest and also proactively agree on a method to resolve any local labor relations situations that surface.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...