Pilots for Denver-based Frontier Airlines are 100 percent ready to strike, in part because of salaries that are well below industry standards despite what they say is the low-cost carrier's rapidly improving profitability. But the situation appears to be even worse for gate agents, ticket-counter personnel and the like who work for Frontier at Denver International Airport and other facilities around the country.
Pay is so low that sources who spoke to Westword on condition of anonymity refer to the DIA gigs as "Cup o' Noodles" jobs, because that's the only thing employees can afford to eat. The result is chronic turnover that, in the opinion of some observers, helps explain why Frontier continues to wind up near the bottom of airline-quality rankings.
We reached out to Frontier on multiple occasions over a series of weeks to get the airlines' take on stories about poor working conditions and more, but we haven't received a response at this writing. If and when we hear back, we'll update this post.
In the meantime, Mike Mayes, air division director for the Transport Workers Union of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate that's trying to organize ground-based Frontier employees, speaks bluntly about the carrier.
"They're greedy bastards," Mayes says. "They're making profits and they're not sharing them with their employees. They're sharing them with their board of directors. As long as they're making big profits, they're going to treat their employees like garbage."
Airline employees at DIA fall into two basic categories: "above the wing," meaning the folks who work directly with customers in the terminal, and "ramp," a catch-all term that encompasses individuals who handle baggage, service planes and take part in directing, towing and de-icing aircraft.
Frontier once hired such workers directly, and we're told hourly pay previously topped out at $15.76, with sick leave provided. But then, about four years ago, the powers-that-be at the airline decided to outsource the jobs, which suddenly got a lot less appealing.
Menzies Aviation, a separate company, currently provides both above-the-wing and ramp employees to Frontier at DIA. Sources describe today's above-the-wing jobs like so: The positions pay $12 per hour, there are no raises, and employees have to be on the job for a year to get a single week of vacation. Furthermore, there's no paid sick leave, forcing workers to come in when they're ailing (and possibly infectious) if they can't afford to leave money on the table.
This scenario doesn't make for a great deal of job loyalty. According to sources, employees are constantly looking for a better job, and when they find one, they tend to bail with little or no notice. As a result, above-the-wing jobs at Frontier are frequently short-staffed, and people who show up often have to work extra-long shifts (e.g., 1:30 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m.) to fill the gaps or cover for absentees. The circumstances can be so dire on the weekends that double-time is offered in the hope that someone will actually show up.
TWU's Mayes says workers in jobs like these are treated better by some carriers than others.
"You have the big guys — American, Delta, United, and I'll throw in Southwest, who call themselves a low-cost carrier, but their structure is like a big company. We do contract negotiations with them, so you're talking about better pay, health benefits, retirement and improvements for scope of work. But for the Envoys, the Republics and the Frontiers, it's a revolving door, because people can go to In-N-Out Burger — I'm on the West Coast — and make $12 an hour and get benefits, too."
Such employees work "at-will," Mayes goes on, "and seniority doesn't really count for anything. Somebody may have just been hired and have weekends off, while somebody who's been there for ten years may have to work Tuesdays and Wednesdays on the midnight shift. And because they're at-will, the company can get rid of them anytime they want."
Nonetheless, ramp workers for Frontier at DIA were so fed up with their lot last month that about thirty of them are said to have walked out and only returned when their pay was boosted from $12 to $15 an hour. That caused understandable resentment among the above-the-wing employees, whose complaints ultimately paid off, albeit in a smaller way. They're on the cusp of a boost to $13 an hour.
Online Menzies job listings like this one and this one reference these higher rates, as well as medical, dental and vision insurance, 401K matches, paid time off and even retention bonuses under certain criteria. As such, things may be on the upswing for above-the-wing and ramp workers at Frontier. For now, though, sources say morale is at rock bottom.
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