Workers for a private contractor at Denver International Airport are striking over a range of health and safety issues, including what they say is a lack of training, understaffing and other unsafe practices that put passengers at risk.
Over fifty employees of Prospect Airport Services walked off the job early on Tuesday, June 18, following the filing of multiple workplace safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that they say have gone unresolved.
“We’re striking for better working conditions,” says Medina Adem, who works as a passenger service assistant (PSA) for Prospect. “There’s a lot of things that need to change."
Garhett Smith, who filed one of the OSHA complaints earlier this month, says the "horrible working conditions" for Prospect workers include an inadequate break room, which is far too small, not properly ventilated and infested with cockroaches.
"You can basically fit like five people at a time before you have to open the door to let air in," says Smith. "And the problem is that's a security risk, just for us to get some air."
"We have to use that break room to have our lunch," says Yenus Sead, another Prospect PSA who went on strike. "We don't have enough space, we don't have enough chairs. And the room is close to the smoking area, so it's terribly smoky."
The workers who went on strike were mostly baggage handlers and PSAs, whose responsibilities include escorting passengers in wheelchairs through the airport. They're employed by Prospect, work at DIA and are assigned to airlines like Southwest and Frontier — but they say the concerns they've raised about their working conditions haven't been addressed by any of their supervisors.
"I haven't heard anything from Prospect," Smith says of his OSHA complaint. "They haven't called me, they haven't responded to any of our representatives. Management has been completely nonexistent on my side."
A representative for Prospect referred questions to the company's in-house counsel, who did not return requests for comment. Based in Chicago, Prospect employs over 8,500 workers at 32 airports across the country, according to its website.
Other concerns raised by Prospect workers include a lack of proper training and safety equipment for handling oversized baggage, and for employees who are required to handle baggage containing guns, ammunition and explosives.
"We get barely any training for CTX," says Smith, referring to the screening technology used by airports to detect explosive devices. "It involves us carrying luggage that might have firearms or other weaponry in it. When I had to do a CTX, it was basically me and another co-worker hoping we don't fuck it up so we don't get terminated."
Additionally, Adem says that because of understaffing, PSAs are sometimes required to assist two passengers in wheelchairs at the same time. "It’s risky both for the passengers and the PSA," she says.
Earlier this year, Denver City Council passed an ordinance that will gradually raise the minimum wage for city workers, including those at DIA, to $15 an hour, but Prospect employees say that they don't receive health coverage, sick days or other benefits, and want to see that change, too.
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"Fifteen dollars [an hour] doesn't mean you have security in your job," says Adem. "It doesn't mean you can have time to spend with your family, that you don't have to work two jobs."
The Prospect workers on strike are not currently unionized, but are being supported in their efforts by Service Employees International Union Local 105, which represents many other workers employed by DIA and its contractors. By striking, employees could be putting their jobs at risk, but they hope to meet with Prospect management to resolve the issues they've raised soon.
"We basically just want them to have a sit-down, and have a voice, at least," says SEIU Local 105 spokesman David Fernandez. "They're within their rights to be able to do this."
"This is very risky for many of us," Adem says. "A lot of the PSAs and baggage handlers at Prospect are elderly people; for most of my co-workers, it's one of the only jobs they think they can do. They don't have many options. We're putting our jobs on the line because we think it's important."