Denver airport janitors are on strike for higher wages

Hundreds of Denver International Airport janitors walked off the job Friday, striking for higher pay and less taxing workload.

But the strike may be short-lived, the union said Friday afternoon, because talks with the employer, Flagship Aviation Services, were promising. SEIU Local 105 said that it would strike again if the negotiations fell through. Flagship Aviation Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week, both by phone and email. Its contract with the union expired Thursday.

The janitors make $17 an hour from their employer, DIA contractor Flagship Aviation Services.

“It’s very difficult for me to pay my rent and put food on the table to support my family. I need livable wages,” Amer Garsark, who’s been on this job 20 years, told The Denver Post at a rally outside the airport’s main terminal.

Workers said that when colleagues resigned over the last couple years, those remaining were forced to take on the burden — on top of needing to clean more than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other facilities, the airport has kept open throughout the pandemic.

“They put the workload on us because nobody comes,” 13-year veteran Jasmine Kayani said. “They can’t get new employees for $17 an hour, so they put more workload on us, with very small wages.”

These two were part of an overwhelming majority — 99.6%, the union SEIU Local 105 reported — of the roughly 250 janitors who voted to authorize this strike. In total, this union unit represents 350 DIA janitors, the vast majority of custodial staff at the airport.

DIA spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa said the airport is “not getting into it because this is between our contractor, Flagship, and their janitor union.” She added Friday morning, “From an airport perspective, we have a plan in place for cleaning and all that, and so far it’s doing pretty well.”

In a statement, the airport urged the two sides to resolve their differences quickly.

Flagship has one of the most lucrative contracts at DIA — a $183 million deal with the city that runs for three years. The company is based in California and operates in other cities’ airports, including Phoenix and Orlando and Tampa, Fla. It began contract work with DIA in March, taking over for San Antonio, Texas-based ISS Facility Services, which had overseen cleaning services for all of DIA’s 26-year history and at Stapleton International Airport before that.

ISS had faced recurring gripes over performance and complaints by its subcontractors that it was shortchanging them. Flagship’s deal, won in a competitive bid process, is worth 59% more per year than ISS was paid, in part because of increased benefit costs, new performance standards and incentives for workers.

When Flagship took over early this year, it absorbed the employees from the prior contractor.

Workers at Friday’s walkout said conditions have declined overall under Flagship. Ron Ruggiero, president of SEIU Local 105, said that in 28 years he’s “never seen workers this angry about how they’ve been treated.”

He said he’s “very confident” the two sides will reach a resolution, but declined to specify exactly what wage level the union is seeking at the bargaining table.

“The fundamental issue,” he said, “is these workers for 18, 19 months have been called heroes by everybody — business leaders, politicians, the press — and they need to be treated like that in this contract. … Well, people need to be paid like they’re essential and heroic.”

Denver Post reporter Jon Murray contributed to this story.

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