Denver International Airport Workers Will Ask Voters for a $15 Minimum Wage

Airport workers gathered at the Denver City and County Building on August 23 to announce the signature-gathering effort.
Airport workers gathered at the Denver City and County Building on August 23 to announce the signature-gathering effort. Chris Walker
Teresita Felix works at Denver International Airport in a catering kitchen run by United Airlines, but she earns so little, she says, that she's forced to live in a house in Aurora with twenty of her relatives, including seven children.

“I cannot afford to live on my own in Denver,” Felix says.

But Felix hopes her financial prospects will change with a new effort to raise airport workers' minimum wage to $15 an hour. Today, August 23, Felix was among dozens of airport employees who gathered in front of the Denver City and County Building to announce a signature-gathering effort that, if successful, would put the Denver Airport Minimum Wage initiative on the May 2019 citywide ballot. The ballot measure would raise the minimum wage of airport workers to $15 dollars by 2021.

Organizers and supporters of the ballot initiative — including UNITE HERE Local 23, the Denver Area Labor Federation, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and Together Colorado — point out how DIA is thriving and will benefit from billions in additional investments during the coming years, while workers employed by some companies operating at the airport make just over $10 an hour.

“DIA is the biggest economic driver in the state...and it's more successful than ever,” UNITE HERE's chapter president, Kevin Abels, announced from a podium at the City and County Building this morning. “Unfortunately, that's not the case for workers. We're here to say Denver and DIA can and must do better.”

“I've given most of my life — nineteen years — to this airport. But I still struggle to pay my bills.”

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Abels highlighted a 2017 report from the Economic Roundtable that cites 6,000 airport workers at DIA making less than $15 an hour, one-third of them earning Colorado's current minimum wage of $10.20 an hour. Meanwhile, the cost of living, especially housing, in Denver is going up.

Another worker at this morning's gathering, Amelton Archelus, put it this way: “I've given most of my life — nineteen years — to this airport. But I still struggle to pay my bills.”

Archelus, who, like Felix also works in the United Airlines catering kitchen, said that he sometimes has to tell his daughter that she can't go to the movies so he has enough money to buy groceries for the family.

As Westword explained in an April cover story, there is a separate but related effort by workers in United Airlines's catering kitchen to unionize — which is also being organized by UNITE HERE and, as mentioned above, employs both Felix and Archelus. A decision by the National Mediation Board on whether the workers can hold a union election is still pending, but should come down within the next month. As our story explained, the decision could have a profound effect on an entire community of Pacific Islanders who have migrated to Colorado specifically to work for United and take advantage of the company's flight benefits, which allows them to travel to Micronesia and the Marshall Islands — as well as bring relatives from the islands to the States — for vastly reduced rates.

United Airlines has been fighting the unionizing effort by its workers, and Joel Pally, a UNITE HERE organizer, expects there to be some push-back by companies operating at DIA against the $15 minimum wage initiative, though he has yet to hear of any specific opposition campaigns.

The initiative's backers need to collect at least 5,000 signatures to make the May 2019 ballot, though Pally says that organizers are aiming to collect at least 16,000 signatures.

Workers cheered as the signature-gathering campaign kicked off this morning. As Felix wrapped up her speech, she stated, “Fifteen dollars isn't just money; it's an acknowledgment of my dignity.”
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker