Airline food prep workers stage PHL ‘die-in’ to rally for better health care

Food prep workers die-in at the Philadelphia airport on Wednesday night to demonstrate the life and death stakes of lacking affordable healthcare. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

Food prep workers die-in at the Philadelphia airport on Wednesday night to demonstrate the life and death stakes of lacking affordable healthcare. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

Outside the American Airlines terminal at Philadelphia International Airport, hundreds of food-prep workers rallied to demand better health care. Most of the workers are employed by LSG Sky Chef, which is a subcontractor for American and most major airlines, and is responsible for preparing flight meals.

Fatoumata Kaba has worked at Sky Chef full time for five years, but can’t afford its health care for herself and her two kids. It would cost her $350 a month to cover them all, and at $13.25 an hour, she said that’s too much. Kaba signed up for Medicaid, but she said she withdrew her application when she heard the Trump administration might count public benefits against anyone applying for citizenship.

“I am an immigrant,” said Kaba, who is from Guinea. “I overheard on the news, stating that Donald Trump was trying to pass a bill for immigrants who have Medicaid, food stamps, housing. If you applied for government benefits, they didn’t say denied, but you know, your application would be affected.”

Afraid her citizenship application would be jeopardized, Kaba withdrew her Medicaid application. She and her children are currently uninsured.

Fatoumata Kaba is pictured during Thursday night’s protest at Philadelphia International Airport where she and hundreds of other food-prep workers rallied to demand better health care. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

Many Sky Chef employees, like Kaba, are immigrants, and many are from West Africa. Kaba works in Philadelphia, but she was joined at Thursday night’s airport protest by Sky Chef workers from New York, Washington and Boston. At one point, they entered the terminal and lay down on the floor for a die-in to demonstrate what they said were the life-and-death stakes of access to health care.

The workers were joined by Philadelphia City Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kenyatta Johnson. City council candidate Nicholas O’Rourke led the rest of the protesters in a song outside during the die-in.

Matthew Bright, who participated in the die-in, works in a Sky Chef department called “Cold Foods” — essentially a walk-in freezer. He said the temperature doesn’t go above 32 degrees.

“And then we go from cold conditions to warm conditions. And a lot of people’s bodies can get sick that way,” he said.

Despite that, Bright said, he doesn’t opt into the health care offered by Sky Chef because the $50 a week it would cost is too expensive. He is currently uninsured.

Food prep workers die-in at the Philadelphia airport on Wednesday night to demonstrate the life and death stakes of lacking affordable healthcare. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

The Sky Chef workers are represented by Unite Here. According to the union, as of 2018 only 28% of workers had employer-provided insurance, and only 5% had children or family members covered. The insurance is by Cigna — for an employee and his or her family in 2019, the cost to the employee is $131.14 a week, with a $2,800 deductible.

The employees are in negotiations with their employer and have authorized a strike. But they are not legally allowed to walk off the job until released from mediation by the National Mediation Board which handles labor-management disputes in the rail and airline industries.

In a statement, an LSG Sky Chef spokesman said that the company has been negotiating with the union since May and has offered wage improvements.

“We remain committed to negotiating in good faith for a contract that will create a secure future for our company and employees,” he wrote. “We hope that union members will act lawfully as they exercise their right to demonstrate or protest.”

Sky Chef employee Joan Freeman does pay the $50 a week for her own health insurance. On top of that, she said, she gets stuck with big hospital bills. Recently, Freeman, who is originally from Liberia, said she went to the emergency room for a toothache. They sent her home with a prescription for ibuprofen, and two weeks later she got a $3,000 bill in the mail.

“Right now, I’m afraid to the hospital because I cannot afford it,” said Freeman.

Joan Freeman is pictured during Thursday night’s protest at Philadelphia International Airport where she and hundreds of other food-prep workers rallied to demand better health care. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

Protesters said the rally was directed at American Airlines because it is Sky Chef’s client and ultimately holds the purse strings because any increased costs for Sky Chef would be absorbed by American.

But airline spokesman Andrew Trull said that these negotiations are between Sky Chef and the union, and that American wants to stay out of it. He said he thought the union targeted American because it’s a household name, but noted that Sky Chef prepares food for most other major airlines as well.

“Whatever the employment costs end up being, that’s what they’ll be, and we’ll deal with that at the time,” Trull said. “We’re just trying to keep ourselves out of the conversation.”

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