More than 450 United Airlines catering employees at Denver International Airport will have either have a new employer or be looking for work come October.
The airline is following in the footsteps of other carriers and contracting out the kitchens that prepare food for flights going forward.
United began soliciting proposals from third-party catering companies in January, in part as a means to save money after COVID-19 cost the company billions in ticket sales. On Thursday, the airline informed workers at DIA and four other airports kitchens that it is going forward with that plan.
Gate Gourmet was selected as the contractor that will lead the airline’s menu planning and kitchen administration starting later this year. The company will also run the Denver kitchen.
In a letter sent to state labor officials on Friday announcing the impending layoffs, United executive Mandeep Grewal wrote that Gate Gourmet workers are represented by the Unite Here union and DIA employees in good standing will be offered employment with Gate Gourmet under the new arrangement. The changeover is expected to take place in October after federal payroll support for the airline runs out.
“One of the most important considerations for us during this process was to protect the careers of our existing catering employees,” Grewal wrote. “We are confident that a large percentage of our employees will receive offers to join Gate Gourmet and look forward to our valued employees continuing to work in this capacity.”
Union workers in the DIA kitchen are disappointed in the airline’s decision, said Rose Medina who has worked there for three years. She and others were hoping United would keep its catering work in-house after receiving billions of dollars in support from the federal government during the pandemic.
“The silver lining I guess to this is we worked for the worker-retention ordinance,” Medina said of the option to keep working under Gate Gourmet.
United kitchen employees, based in Denver, Houston, Cleveland, Honolulu and Newark, N.J., voted to unionize in 2018. As of earlier this year, there were roughly 2,500 people working in those five kitchens combined.
Medina said not much has been communicated about how the transfer from United to Gate Gourmet will occur. The biggest concern among workers is what benefits will transfer over. With a large number of employees who are immigrants, access to free or discounted airfare to travel back to the home countries was a major reason for working in the kitchen and helped offset low pay, Medina said.
“I honestly do feel bad for the people who have been there for decades,” she said. “They don’t know what is going to happen with their benefits and all they have put into this company.”
A United representative told The Denver Post on Friday that the airline is working on details around providing certain benefits to workers as the transition to contractors happens but declined to elaborate on what benefits were being looked at.
In a letter to employees, Grewal emphasized that United values protecting the careers of catering team employees and noted that 70% will still be covered by Unite Here after the transition. The Cleveland and Houston kitchens will be run by contractors without union representation at this point.
In a statement, Unite Here president D. Taylor urged incoming Houston contractor Newrest to work with the union and the employees who chose to organize.
“As Newrest comes to Houston and takes over this important business at the airport, United and Newrest must respect workers’ choice to organize a union and commit not to engage in a union-busting campaign,” Taylor’s statement said.
Gategroup, the Swiss parent company behind Gate Gourmet, also issued a statement Friday, promising to bring on-trend menus and services to United flights.
“We are pleased to partner with such an esteemed carrier in the United at the key hubs include in the agreement,” executive Federico Germani said in a statement.
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