Taking Its Toll

Labor STRIFE, racial tension and a "disadvantaged" owner who drives a Mercedes: between the lines of DIA's controversial parking contract.

It's a busy Sunday evening at Denver International Airport. Dozens of flights have arrived within the past hour, and now those passengers are trying to make their way home. A row of red brake lights on the western horizon signals a line at the toll plaza, and hundreds of drivers wait impatiently to make their way down Pena Boulevard.

The toll booths at DIA are the airport equivalent of St. Peter's pearly gates: Everyone has to pass through, and they have to pay for the privilege. But for both motorists and the employees who take their money on behalf of Colorado Parking Company, the experience can be anything but heavenly.

Waits in the toll-booth lines drew headlines after DIA's opening. And employee anger at work conditions in the booths led to a contentious union-organizing drive last spring, with the federal government weighing in on the side of the union. That effort reached a comic high point during the Christmas season, when two union organizers dressed as Santa Claus and his elf were arrested for passing out leaflets at the toll plaza announcing that Colorado Parking was receiving an award as Scrooge of the Year.

The employee unrest at the parking plaza has an ironic aspect: Most of the workers are black, hired by a company that got its city contract in the first place because it promised to hire large numbers of minorities. And the labor dispute is just the latest chapter in the tawdry story of the parking concession at DIA. That saga includes the fact that three friends of Mayor Wellington Webb's were given the first shot at the highly lucrative contract, which could have steered hundreds of thousands of dollars to investors who put up as little as $25 of their own money.

That initial deal was nixed when its details were made public. But one of the original partners resurfaced in a second, successful bid. The contract eventually negotiated by the city gave that local partner, a black dentist who has since traveled with Webb and contributed to the mayor's re-election campaign, an especially juicy plum: Today Morris Clark is allowed to vote on the size of his own quarterly bonus.

Indeed, for the winners of the parking contract at DIA, Scrooge is nowhere in sight. Clark and the out-of-town partners who invested in Colorado Parking are guaranteed a profit from the stream of vehicles passing through the toll plaza. And Clark received a 40 percent ownership stake in Colorado Parking under the city's program for "disadvantaged businesses." That program is supposed to help minority firms get a crack at city business and open up employment opportunities for local minorities. But the experience with the DIA parking concession raises the question of just how much benefit the city's minority contracting program provides to the truly disadvantaged.

Even though Clark has little to do with the day-to-day operations of Colorado Parking, devoting the majority of his time to his dental practice, he enjoys generous quarterly bonuses from the city concession. His employees, more than half of whom are African-American, aren't so lucky. While they scrape by on $7.36 an hour and say they are frequently suspended without pay for minor errors, Clark is the one who has been designated as disadvantaged--even though he lives in a $939,000 home in Cherry Hills Village and drives a Mercedes-Benz.

All of this rankles many of the minority employees of Colorado Parking. "Clark won't help his own people," says Tony Brown, an African-American man who works for Colorado Parking in the DIA parking garage. "He's a dentist and he won't even give them dental insurance."

The DIA toll plaza first came to the attention of the public in the days just after the airport opened, when long lines stretched down Pena Boulevard and angry motorists waited as long as fifteen minutes to exit. City officials scrambled to assure the public that toll-plaza employees simply needed time to learn their jobs; what they didn't say was that much of the delay was caused by Colorado Parking's bungled management.

The company and the union agree that worker turnover has been rampant in the toll booths; one reason the employee on the other side of the glass may take so long to count your change is that he's been on the job only a few days. Working conditions are so abysmal, employees say, that many people quit within days of being hired. Union officials, who won a representation election in January after a months-long battle that ultimately brought the Denver City Council into the fray, say things got so bad that one employee denied a bathroom break had to urinate in her booth.

Colorado Parking employs about 200 people at the airport, most of whom work in the toll plaza collecting parking fees. A much smaller contingent provides security, directs traffic, gives jump starts and performs a variety of other tasks in the DIA parking garage. Impatient motorists may be surprised to learn that the cashiers in the booths have an additional duty that can delay the process: typing the license number of every departing vehicle into a computer. Each night, the location and license number of all the cars in DIA's parking garage are entered into the computer system, and before the cashiers wave a car through the gate, they must verify that the information on the parking ticket matches the computer records. This is intended to prevent "ticket swapping," whereby motorists evade paying long-term charges by claiming to have lost their tickets. The toll-plaza employees are expected to check the computer records and make sure their cash box balances out at the end of the shift.

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