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‘I lost everything’: How airport workers struggle as the economy transforms

The plight of workers at BWI airport is an object lesson in how our economy is transforming.

Betty Schueler, a server at Phillips Seafood at BWI Airport, said working conditions have declined since a “developer” took over management of the airport’s concessions. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

It’s 11 on a Friday morning, and Betty Schueler is sitting in her mobile home, glancing nervously at her cell phone. She’s off today from her job as a server in a bar at Baltimore-Washington International airport, but her shift manager still might call at any minute to tell her to come on in.

“Am I going to be lucky?” wonders Schueler, 59, sitting in a comfy armchair in the trailer she shares with her sister in Severn, Md., three miles from the airport. “And I want to answer, because maybe, miracle of miracles, they’ll say, ‘We need you to come into work today.’ I try to tell them, ‘I’m only down the road!’ If by three o’ clock they haven’t called, I know they won’t call.”

Those calls are the welcome ones. On her regularly scheduled days — only three a week lately, since her hours were cut to parttime — management might call to say things are looking slow, so don’t bother coming in after all, which makes life tough at the end of the month. Especially when you’re making $3.63 per hour, plus an unpredictable amount in tips.

“I might be able to make a hundred dollars. I might not,” she said.

“My whole life, now, it’s envelopes,” she added, pulling out a stack of them. “Rent, my union dues, Verizon. And one of them is short, so I’m hoping over the next three days, I’ll be able to make up the difference.”

That’s not how things used to be, said Schueler, a brash talker with a big smile who’s worked at BWI her whole adult life. When she was younger, she could count on steady income, guaranteed work and benefits. Enough to support a decent life — not lavish, but also free from daily anxiety about seeing those envelopes and paying those expenses. But, according to Schueler, it all started to change in 2004 when BWI underwent a management shift  — one that generated more business, creating more jobs, but leaving some long-time employees with more meager wages and less steady hours.

In some ways, what happened at BWI echoes what was happening around the rest of the country, too: Employment has rapidly increased over the past decade in service sectors such as retail and restaurants, but wages have lagged and insecurity has flourished, explaining in part why the recovery hasn’t registered for so many Americans.

Here’s how it played out for Schueler. She had worked for the same company, which operated all of the airport’s shops and restaurants, for 32 years. She even helped organize with the local hospitality union in 2003. But the next year, the state handed the concessions contract to a new company, later named AirMall, which leases out spaces to separate enterprises rather than running them itself. The stratified management makes it harder to organize for higher wages, and business turnover makes it difficult to depend on an airport job for very long at all.

Having no luck with AirMall itself, Schueler and other workers have pressured the Maryland Aviation Administration to impose higher labor standards, as it has with other state contracts. That type of pressure has worked in Los Angeles, where the airport authority enacted a higher minimum wage. But while Maryland government officials have expressed support for the general idea, real changes haven’t gained traction. The MAA says it’s happy with the increasing revenue BWI has generated since AirMall took over. To Schueler, that rankles.

“I’m certainly a great advocate of developing our state, but I certainly don’t think we expected to lose our jobs over it,” she said, glancing in the airport’s direction. “I had to pay my income taxes to my state, and I’m sitting there three miles down the road thinking: What’s wrong with this picture?”

“We have no relationship with the workers”

Schueler had always imagined going to work at BWI. She was born in 1954, not far away, when all she saw was farmland surrounding a little airstrip. Back in the 1970s, fresh out of high school, she got her first job there as a cocktail waitress. It came with decent benefits, full weeks, long shifts, good tips. She would even go to the airport some days to socialize with friends.

“I love working at the airport,” Schueler says. “It’s where I grew up, more or less. I used to come here every weekend and watch the planes take off. I always wanted to work here, working with the public.”

At that time, the shops and restaurants were run directly by the airport concessions arm of Marriott International, and staffing was completely centralized. Business came and went over time, but rarely disrupted the livelihood of workers. “When one side of the airport was slow, and the other side was busy. They always managed to keep the workers,” Schueler said.

By 2003, Schueler was making $8.75 an hour, plus tips, which came out to a solid $45,000 a year. That year, she and several hundred fellow workers also joined the hospitality union, UNITE-HERE, hopeful that by organizing they could further improve their quality of life.

But other forces were about to turn against them. Then governor Bob Erlich (R) turned over management of BWI’s stores to a company called the British Airports Authority, which was renamed AirMall when it was sold to a private equity company in 2010. The hope, in part, was to finance capital improvements through boosting revenue from concessions, which in turn would allow the airport to better compete for business from the airlines.

The effort created hundreds of new jobs. But the flipside was less security for many long-time employees, according to Schueler, the union and several other workers.

Rather than running each business itself, BAA operated BWI like a shopping mall, competitively soliciting tenants and allowing them to set their own wages and working conditions. Today, there are about 75 outlets across BWI. Some companies own more than one, but most are individual operators.

As a result, the union says it is not practical to negotiate with every business individually, and wages and labor standards can vary widely.

“You’re adding another layer of management that needs to get paid, and you’re also reducing the amount of accountability,” says Bhav Tibrewal, an organizer with UNITE-HERE, which reports that wages, adjusted for inflation, have declined in the airport in the past few years. “We’ve found this model creates downward economic pressure on the concessions program.”

About 18 percent of airports’ stores and restaurants are run like BWI’s, according to the consultancy ICF International. And other aspects of the airport business model are putting pressure on workers. Airlines have also contracted out baggage handlers, security guards, wheelchair pushers, and others. One study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, calculated that wages had decreased by 14 percent between 2002 and 2011.

For its part, AirMall notes that the business model has nearly tripled the number of concessions jobs at BWI, and says employees often receive better pay than they would outside the airport. According to their data, tipped employees make $19.22 an hour when gratuities are included, and hourly non-tipped workers make $9.74 on average. Still, the company denies responsibility for the people who work at the airport’s stores and restaurants.

“Really, we have no relationship with the workers,” says Brett Kelly, vice president of AirMall, “in the same way that the management with Tysons Corner would have no relationship with the people who work at Crate & Barrel.”

Cheri Cernak, whose family runs the O’Brycki’s restaurant in the Southwest terminal, says she certainly seeks to pay her employees a higher wage. Everyone is full time, cooks start at $10 an hour and she thinks her waiters make $17 to $20 an hour including tips.

“If you pay less wages, you’re not going to get people willing to do a good job for you,” she said. “If you want to present your business at its best, you need to treat your people well.”

 “Everything I built up for decades, I lost.”

According to the union, O’Brycki’s is the exception.

Over the past year, scores of workers have shown up at hearings and on union picketlines to talk about unpredictable hours at very low wages. It’s especially difficult for people who don’t live as close to the airport as Schueler does.

And with so many renovations over the past few years, employment has been unstable: In March, for example, a Sam Adams restaurant closed down to make room for construction. About 15 employees were laid off, and only a handful found new placements within the airport.

For Airmall, which just this summer was acquired by a German airport management company, churn is a natural part of the business model.

“Part of what you enjoy is that there are new offerings,” says the company’s Kelly. “Based on new things that enter the marketplace that you want represented, that creates opportunities for some, and those opportunities might not go on forever. I feel this is progress.”

But, as Schueler has learned, it can be rough on workers.

When the ownership of Schueler’s bar changed back in 2012, it shut down and laid off all the workers. Schueler couldn’t find another job, which she suspects might have to do with her union activity. In the mean time, unemployment checks weren’t enough for her to live on. Her savings of $55,000 vaporized.

Finally, after a year and a half, she got another position, at Phillips Seafood, at a reduced number of hours, earning only the state’s tipped minimum wage of $3.63 an hour, plus tips. (Phillips Seafood’s parent, HMSHost, did not respond to most questions about its employment practices.)

Schueler says her monthly wages now amount to a few hundred dollars a week. Her sister’s food stamps have helped a little, but there’s nothing left to spare.

Schueler and her sister used to go to movies, or even just the mall. Now, the gas is too expensive to get there, and it’s not like she could buy anything anyway. Even going to birthday parties is a strain, since she’d have to bring a present.

A couple of days each week, she still has the joy of putting on black jeans and a black t-shirt, doing up her hair and driving a few miles down the road to work. But she always thinks about what’s gone.

“I’ve lost everything,”  Schueler says. “Everything I built up for decades, I lost.”