The celebration was short-lived. In March, Yalew, 37, and hundreds of others were laid off — victims of the worst economic downturn in the industry’s history. Now, instead of selling avocado wraps and Cobb salads to travelers, he has joined more than 30 million other Americans who have filed for unemployment benefits since March, uncertain when they will be able to return to their jobs.
“With no paycheck, imagine how it feels,” said Yalew, who lives in Alexandria.
It was not supposed to be this way.
The $2 trillion economic rescue package passed by Congress in April included more than $60 billion to keep airlines and airports afloat and provided a lifeline for many front-line workers.
The legislation, known as the Cares Act, focused on shielding pilots, flight attendants, airline catering workers and wheelchair attendants from involuntary furloughs through September. Airports, eligible for $10 billion in funding were required to keep employees on the job through the end of the year.
But the bill did not include job protections for those like Yalew, the mostly immigrant, hourly wage workers who staff the hundreds of shops, restaurants and coffee stands at the nation’s airports. These workers often make less than their aviation counterparts. Yalew, for example, makes $13.15 an hour.
“These workers are in the industry, and they shouldn’t be left out,” said Adam Yalowitz, the deputy research director for the Unite Here union, which represents some of the employees.
The gap means the workers are left to rely on their employers, local governments and social service organizations for assistance. The problem is that many of the agencies they would normally turn to for help also are struggling because of the pandemic.
Airline passenger traffic is down more than 95 percent. According to the Transportation Security Administration, officers screened just over 190,000 people on May 7, the most recent numbers available, compared with more than 2.5 million on the same date in 2019 — a decrease of more than 90 percent. And that total overcounts the number of actual travelers because it includes flight crew and airport employees.
Fewer travelers means fewer customers at airport shops and restaurants. And that in turn has translated into layoffs for the vast majority of the industry’s 120,000 food and retail workers.
According to the Airport Restaurant and Retail Association, sales at aviation restaurant and retail establishments dropped to $340 million from $865 million in March — a more than 60 percent decline when compared with last year. April’s numbers are expected to be far worse.
“Obviously this came on all of us very, very quickly, ” said Steve Johnson, the president and chief executive of HMSHost North America, which runs restaurants and shops at 120 airports worldwide, including National and Dulles. “Things went from relatively normal the first week of March to literally falling off a cliff.”
For Yalew, March started out like many of the other months during his more than three years at National Airport. But soon, he was getting fewer hours. Shops were being closed. By March 19, he and his co-workers were asked to turn in their badges.
Of the estimated 2,500 food and retail workers at Dulles and National, union officials estimate only about 30 are still working.
“It was a scary time,” Yalew said recently, thinking back at how swiftly things changed. “We were worried thinking, ‘What is going to happen to us?’ ” he said.
His job may be gone, but the bills are still there. His share of the rent for the apartment he shares with a roommate is $750. Between that, the $700 he pays for courses toward his IT studies and the money he sends back to Ethiopia to support his 5-year-old daughter, there is little else left.
“Savings?” he said. “Are you joking? I pay tuition, I pay rent, and that’s it.”
Michelle Styczynski, a barista at a Starbucks at Dulles Airport, said she did not have to read the headlines to know something was wrong. The caffeine-starved crowds at her shop in the international concourse got lighter and lighter as March wore on. Her 36-hour workweek had been cut to 10. Her last shift was March 15, two days after the Trump administration’s ban on travel from 26 European countries went into effect.
Still, she counts herself among the fortunate. She has health benefits through her husband’s job with the federal government, though there are other worries. They can pay rent and buy groceries for now, she said, but without the roughly $2,250 a month she brought in from her job at Starbucks, she can no longer pay the $500 a month she owes on her student loans.
She does not begrudge other airport workers for benefiting from job protections under the Cares Act, but she does not understand why she and her colleagues were not included. She said she and others want assurances that when planes start flying again, they will have jobs to come back to and the protective equipment they need to do them safely.
But many airport concessions companies say they can’t make any guarantees right now.
“The airport restaurant and retail industry is facing a crisis for survival,” said Rob Wigington, executive director of the Airport Restaurant and Retail Association. “It’s difficult to see so many of our employees out of work, and while companies are trying to provide whatever assistance they can, it needs to be balanced with the reality of almost no cash flow and sales.”
While some companies, including HMSHost and Paradies Lagardére, have extended health benefits for employees, others simply shut down their operations and furloughed workers.
Wigington said some companies sought loans through the Paycheck Protection Program created as part of the Cares Act but didn’t qualify because they weren’t able to rehire employees within the time period required by the legislation.
Johnson, of HMSHost, said his company did not qualify for Cares Act dollars, so it has turned to airports for help. And while some have agreed to provide rent relief or take a percentage of sales rather than the minimum payments required under their contracts, it still might not be enough in some markets.
“The strategy is to try and be here for the people when the business comes back,” Johnson said. “We have to keep the company alive so they’ll have a company to come back to.”
He said HMSHost made a deliberate decision to furlough workers instead of lay them off because it would be easier to bring them back. It has extended health benefits for those enrolled in company-sponsored programs and created a website with information for furloughed workers, including links to companies that are hiring.
Unions, however, say companies such as HMSHost, which reported more than $3.5 billion in annual sales before the crisis, can do more. And so can airports, which received $10 billion in money from the Cares Act.
“Airport concessionaires are seeking and receiving relief,” said Marlene Patrick-Cooper, the president of Unite Here Local 23, which represents food and retail workers at Dulles and National. “Airports should make concessionaires commit to bring laid-off airport employees back to work as the airports recover and ensure that front-line workers have access to quality health care.”
They point to examples like Atlanta, home to Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport, which employs thousands of contract workers like Yalew.
There, the mayor and city council moved quickly to offer relief to airport concessionaires, voting in March to waive an estimated $12 million worth of payments required under rental agreements in an effort keep workers on the job.
“We were trying to get ahead of what we knew was coming,” said Atlanta City Council member Marci Collier Overstreet. Once restrictions were placed on international traffic, first from China and then from Europe, “We knew everything would come to an almost complete halt.”
But workers were still furloughed. HMSHost temporarily laid off 225 workers. In a letter to the union, the company said the closing would be temporary.
Overstreet said that she wasn’t aware of the extent of the layoffs, but that the furloughs would be something she and her council colleagues would look into.
At Dulles and National, airport officials have agreed to defer some payments through June. Officials said that despite receiving more than $229 million from the Cares Act, they too face an uncertain future. Over the past few years, money from concessions has made up a greater share of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s revenue, so the loss of those dollars will have a significant impact on the airports’ bottom lines.
Earl Adams Jr., chairman of the authority, which manages the two airports, said they are still trying to determine what to do with the money but at least a portion of it must be used to pay employees. Under the terms of the program, airports must agree to keep 90 percent of their employees on the payroll through the end of 2020.
“We are trying to balance a lot of things,” Adams said. “Even with the certainty from the Cares money, there’s still a need to fully analyze what the rules are and how it can be used.”
The authority has been in talks with the union about what can be done to help restaurant and retail workers not covered by the Cares Act, Adams said.
“We’re just as aware as anyone else that this is having a serious impact on workers, and we want them to be safe,” he said.
Adams added that the authority remains committed to ensuring the raises approved in December that will guarantee workers a $15-an-hour minimum wage will still happen.
But to Yalew and Styczynski and their co-workers, those raises matter only if they have jobs to go back to. For now, that’s far from certain.
“I’m afraid that they won’t bring back a lot of people,” Styczynski said. “I fear a lot of us will still be unemployed.”