'We're sick and tired': Restaurant workers at Phoenix airport strike over understaffing

Melissa Yeager
Arizona Republic

Restaurant workers for HMS Host, one of the two companies that manages restaurants at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, walked off the job early Wednesday morning to protest what they call severe understaffing at the airport's restaurants.

The workers, who are part of the UNITE Here hospitality union, set up a picket line outside Terminal 4 for one day to bring attention to working conditions and to push the company to hire more workers.

Rachele Smith, spokesperson for UNITE Here in Arizona, said understaffing has taken an emotional and physical toll on employees. 

"Understaffing has just reached a breaking point," Smith said from the picket line.

At around 9 a.m., members of the picket line moved from outside Terminal 4 to circle the gate area on Level 4 inside the terminal. Dozens of protestors dressed in red UNITE Here shirts shouted, "HMS Host on strike."

The protesters circled the terminal four times. On the last circle, airport security and staff started monitoring the picket line, at which time the workers moved down the escalator and back outside. 

Phoenix Airport restaurant staffing lags

HMS Host operates 29 restaurants at Sky Harbor Airport and has reopened 25 since the return of passenger traffic. HMS Host said 23 of those restaurants were open Wednesday thanks to managers who filled shifts and partner businesses in the airport that loaned workers for the day.

Among the restaurants HMS Host manages at Sky Harbor are Blanco Tacos + Tequila, Cowboy Ciao, Shake Shack and Starbucks.

Staffing has been a continual problem in recent months. Passenger traffic and thus demand for concessions has robustly returned to nearly prepandemic levels but airport concessionaires have struggled to fill positions to meet that demand.

HMS Host restaurant workers protest on Sept. 15, 2021, in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

"HMS Host is dealing with the same severe staffing crisis as are other employers throughout the U.S. As we build back, we are committed to investing in our people and are prioritizing hiring and staffing stores while maintaining physical distancing in adherence to COVID-19 guidelines," the company said in a statement emailed to The Arizona Republic. 

"We are proud to have opened almost all of our restaurants and returned many of our valued associates to work with competitive wages and appreciation and retention bonuses.

"We will not be distracted from our goal of recruiting, hiring and operating stores that deliver the best experience possible during a very difficult time in the travel industry."

Long lines at Phoenix airport restaurants

The result has been long lines at popular places like Starbucks during peak hours with staff struggling to keep up with customers.

Victoria Stahl, a barista at Starbucks in Terminal 4, said Sky Harbor staffing had not improved since she first spoke with The Republic in May about the working environment there. She said lines are still long, with travelers sometimes waiting a half an hour for a cup of coffee and employees struggling to get restroom breaks. 

"We're still facing the same situation. It has not changed in the last few months even though HMS has said that they're doing everything that they possibly can to get more employees and more people working here. It just hasn't come through," Stahl said. 

She said she and her colleagues felt striking was the only way to get HMS Host's attention.

"We're sick and tired of talking to managers and telling them all these things, and for them to only say, 'We know. We know. We're trying our best.' Like, your best isn't good enough," she said. 

HMS Host, Sky Harbor hold job fairs

During a recent meeting of the Phoenix Sky Harbor Aviation Advisory Board, Assistant Aviation Director Jay DeWitt said HMS Host had 819 employees in 2019. At the time of the Aug. 19 meeting, DeWitt said the company had 569 employees at the airport. 

HMS Host said Wednesday it is actively recruiting for more than 200 positions.

"Opportunities remain available to our furloughed associates who declined offers to return to work. HMS Host is committed to taking care of its associates and travelers while overcoming this national staffing crisis," the company said. 

A spokesperson said the company has partnered with multiple organizations to recruit locally and is conducting job fairs. Those interested in working for HMS Host can apply at https://careers.hmshost.com/jobs/search/where/PHX.

Sky Harbor Airport is scheduled to hold another job fair on Sept. 20 at Burton Barr Library in central Phoenix. Get more information at https://www.skyharbor.com/jobs.

You can connect with Arizona Republic consumer travel reporter Melissa Yeager through email at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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