Taking Its Toll
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.
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."
Shortly after the NLRB filed a complaint of unfair labor practices against the company this past fall, the union fired a broadside of its own at a council meeting, challenging the company's treasured quarterly bonus. At that point several city council members, including Ramona Martinez, had apparently had enough. They joined the union in questioning whether Colorado Parking should receive a bonus. "We wanted them to resolve the problem," says Martinez. "I was really surprised Colorado Parking didn't want to sit down and work out a contract."
Shortly after the firm's bonus was challenged, the company agreed to do just that. But Clark denies that the city tried to sway him to recognize the union.
"We didn't feel under pressure from city council at all," he says. "I told the council I'd meet with the union at any time and any point. If the employees want a union, they should have a union. We're looking forward to getting a contract with them and settling this."
As things stand now, Colorado Parking begins each fiscal year secure in the knowledge that it can't lose money at DIA. That's because its three-year contract with the city includes a provision that the company will be reimbursed by Denver for all expenses, including employee salaries.
The company's profit comes from a $10,500 monthly management fee--and from a quarterly bonus that is awarded based on its ability to provide a "courteous, efficient, first-class operation." Criteria for determining the bonus includes the number of customer complaints, the amount of employee turnover, the number of minority employees on the payroll and the frequency of delays in excess of seven minutes at the toll plaza. A three-person committee determines the size of the bonus, which is not supposed to exceed .745 percent of net parking revenues. Clark serves on the committee, along with DIA parking director Dorothy Harris and United Airlines business manager Joe O'Brien.
Denver aviation director Jim DeLong says having Clark serve on the committee that determines his own bonus is not out of line, since the concessionaire represents just one vote out of three. "If Colorado Parking had two thirds of the vote, that would be a mistake," says DeLong. "But for a representative of that company to be there is not unreasonable."
Last year, the airport took in more than $44 million in parking fees, meaning Colorado Parking was eligible for as much as $327,800 in bonuses, as well as $126,000 in management fees. Given Clark's 40 percent interest in the company, he theoretically would have stood to earn more than half a million dollars over three years--not a bad return for an initial investment he's been quoted as saying was "in the tens of thousands of dollars."
The city, however, has been critical of the company's performance and hasn't given Colorado Parking its full bonus. DeLong makes no secret of his dissatisfaction with Colorado Parking in the period after DIA opened. "The performance was not as high as it should have been," he says. But the airport boss says he's seen "significant improvement over the past months. I've seen it in the lines at the cashier booths. They did an excellent job over the Christmas holidays."
The bonus committee apparently shared DeLong's view of a company on the upswing. City records show that, despite its record of controversy, Colorado Parking received $117,422 in bonuses during the first three quarters of 1995, along with its monthly management fees. (The amount of the fourth-quarter bonus, if one is awarded, has not yet been determined.)
And while Clark may not take an active role in the day-to-day management of the company, he diligently pursued the investment opportunity. Colorado Parking, a joint venture between Parking Company of America and Clark's Front Range Parking Company, won the highly sought-after airport parking contract in 1993 only after a long and tumultuous political battle.
The airport staff was already screening new parking contractors when Webb first strode into city hall in his size-twelve sneakers. There was a scramble to win the contract when the city opened it up for bids in 1991, and several friends of the mayor managed to be first in line for the goodies.
A selection committee reporting to former aviation director George Doughty recommended one firm for the parking contract, but that decision was overruled by city hall. "Under the Pea administration, when the director of aviation made a recommendation, it was usually approved," says former assistant director of aviation Ed Trommeter. "In this case, there was a significant amount of involvement from the mayor's office."
In the fall of 1992 the city announced that it had settled on a new parking contractor. The winner was a partnership put together by Parking Company of America that included Morris Clark and several friends and supporters of Webb, among them former Denver Bronco Odell Barry and Julia Gayles, a Democratic party activist and longtime friend of Wilma Webb. A public uproar followed the revelation that Barry and Clark put up just $65 and Gayles just $25, for a combined 45 percent interest in the parking concession. For this pittance, the partners stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars over the three-year life of the agreement. The contract even included the provision that the majority partner, Parking Company of America, would pay all startup costs.
The city dumped its contract with the Barry-Gayles-Clark team after the terms became public. But shortly after, Clark formed his own company--Front Range Parking--and again entered into a joint venture with Parking Company of America, which operates several parking concessions at airports around the country. That venture--known as Colorado Parking Company--won the final contract at the end of 1993.
The city's request for proposals for the parking concession made it clear that a minority partner, known as a disadvantaged business enterprise, must be part of the venture and receive at least 30 percent of total revenues. The qualifications for a minority partner listed in the call for proposals would apply to almost any businessperson, requiring "proof of three years business management experience with responsibility for scheduling personnel, handling cash and making bank deposits, record keeping and other similar types of responsibilities as manager or owner of a business."
The administration's interest in airport parking contracts aroused the interest of the FBI, which interviewed Trommeter last spring as part of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation of possible improprieties at DIA. Trommeter says federal agents asked him detailed questions about the history of airport concession contracting. However, Barry, Gayles and Clark have not been accused of wrongdoing with regard to the parking contract, and Clark says the FBI has never contacted him.
Clark is well-known in the local black business community but insists he is not a close friend of the mayor's. "I do not know the Webbs well," he says. "I've never been to their home or anything like that." Clark did, however, accompany the Webbs on an eight-day tour of Ethiopia last fall. That tour was organized by Daniel Yohannes, president of Colorado National Bank, and included several other prominent Coloradans. Clark also contributed $500 to the mayor's re-election campaign.
Despite the administration's fervent efforts to make sure minorities got a fair piece of the parking contract, minority employees have been unhappy there almost from the start. No single event better represented the state of affairs at Colorado Parking than the December arrest of Santa Claus and his elf at the toll plaza. "I was an elf and union president Rick Hall was Santa," Portillo says.
Company managers weren't in much of a holiday spirit, though, and promptly called the police. Portillo and Hall were arrested and charged with interfering with traffic. But Portillo says the stunt impressed many of the employees at the toll booths.
"It gave the workers confidence they could get in the bosses' face," he says. "We were waving to one another from the police car. We were seeing a lot of thumbs up from the booths."
Clark's partner in Colorado Parking, Parking Company of America, insists the union has maligned the company. "We strive to treat our employees with respect," says Susan Chavez. "Nothing is done arbitrarily. We have policies and procedures in place that are followed. We realize our employees are the backbone of the company."
Chavez says that many of the problems with the DIA parking concession stem from the difficulty in opening a new facility. "I feel it's unfortunate Local 105 chose to target a company just beginning a new operation," she says. "They've spread false stories about us."
Last week, Chavez adds, the union and the company agreed to drop all legal charges against each other in preparation for contract negotiations. As a result, the NLRB has canceled a planned hearing on whether Colorado Parking violated federal labor laws.
DIA officials emphasize that Colorado Parking's labor problems are a private matter that they have no control over. And they say they believe Colorado Parking has become more efficient since the chaotic days after DIA opened. "When an operation is turned over to a new operator, there's a learning curve," says parking director Harris. "I think any operator would go through that."
DeLong says the city still hasn't decided whether or not to extend Colorado Parking's contract when it runs out at the end of the year. "We're not out to destroy anybody," he says. "It's a little early to speculate."
Bargaining on the first union contract begins this week. And the city's willingness to rehire the company may hinge on whether Colorado Parking reaches an accommodation with Local 105. With Webb and most of the city council avowedly pro-labor, the city might be uncomfortable doing business with a company that can't get a contract signed with its employees.
As for Colorado Parking's beleaguered workers, they're hoping their new contract will finally make DIA's toll plaza and parking garages a more pleasant place to work. But Tony Brown predicts that smoothing over past tensions won't be easy. "A lot of people have been scared to speak up because they think they'll lose their jobs," says Brown. "There's been a huge separation between management and employees, and there's still a lot of animosity.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.