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Taking Its Toll

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

Marsha Mahoney, who has worked in the toll plaza since March, says the main reason there's been almost complete turnover at Colorado Parking since DIA opened is lack of training and disrespect for employees. "I was trained one day and then put in a booth on my own," she says. Mahoney was quickly able to learn how things were supposed to work in the toll booths, but she says others weren't as fast to catch on and were abruptly fired. Those who stay, she says, are often suspended for routine errors that the company may not discover until months after the fact.

"They discipline people for being late three or four months after they were late," says Tony Brown. "Right now they're disciplining two people who were late in November. Management will say, 'You were late in September and you're fired.' They're bullies toward the workers."

Brown also says he received virtually no training. "I've been asking for a job description ever since I started," he says. "When I first started in October, no one even read my resume. The management has no training, either. If it wasn't for the people who came from previous jobs with training, things wouldn't work at all."

Over the summer, Mahoney says, employees' paychecks were routinely withheld if their cash drawers came up short. "They'd take people's checks away from them and say, 'We'll cash your check and give you what's left over,'" she says. "One time the computers went down and showed a shortage. The manager said it wasn't my fault but I had to pay anyway."

Susan Chavez, a spokeswoman for Parking Company of America, the Cincinnati-based majority owner of Colorado Parking, confirms that employee pay was withheld. "For one short period there were deductions," she says. When the company learned that the practice was illegal in Colorado, she adds, "we changed the procedure."

Employee complaints prompted last spring's organizing drive by Local 105 of the Service Employees International Union. The union won the representation election last month by a vote of 91 to 64, and bargaining for a new contract is expected to begin this week. Most of the parking employees make $7.36 an hour, but union organizer David Portillo says working conditions, not wages, are the main issue.

"It's the way Colorado Parking does business," he says. "There isn't due process. Somebody can be tardy once and get fired, and somebody else won't be. It depends on what the supervisor's mood is that day."

When a supervisor refused one cashier's request for a bathroom break, Portillo says, the woman was forced to relieve herself in her booth, in between taking tickets from motorists. "The breaks aren't regularly scheduled," Portillo says. "The cashiers ask if they can close their booth if they have to go to the bathroom. If there's a big line, they're told to hold it. This is a big issue with the cashiers."

Meanwhile, says Tony Brown, Colorado Parking's local partner is rarely seen at DIA. The only time Morris Clark has been spotted by the employees, Brown says, is when he's on the way to the quarterly meeting where he votes on his own bonus. "That's the only time we've seen him," says Brown. "He's never there."

Clark says his absence is explained by the fact that his partner, Parking Company of America, handles the operational details of the parking concession. And he says many of the problems at the toll plaza are the result of opening at a new airport.

"With any new facility there's always things that need to be improved," Clark says. "There was a very high [employee] turnover. The job is a difficult one. We procure money for the city. We have to have people who understand that. If it meant letting people go or finding out competency, we did that. We're the first and last people that interact with [the public] at DIA. That's one hell of a responsibility."

Clark confirms that his employees have no dental insurance but says he hopes to offer dental coverage in the future. He bristles at the suggestion that his company is a bad place for minorities. "We have a good program for our employees," he insists. "The employees are compensated well. This is the greatest airport in the world and the people who work for us know that."

Clark insists that, far from being a hotbed of labor trouble, Colorado Parking enjoys "very high" worker morale. "The employees are satisfied with what we're doing," he says. He plays down the vote to unionize, which capped a nine-month organizing effort that became a frequent topic of discussion at city council airport committee meetings.

During those biweekly gatherings, several cashiers testified on the company's cash-shortage policy and the high rate of turnover. The union also accused Colorado Parking of trying to thwart its organizing drive by threatening to fire employees involved with the union--a claim that was later backed up by the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). "We constantly had workers there," Portillo says. "The city council wasn't interested in seeing this on their table every year for the next four years."

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