A group of airport workers in Missoula walked out on the job and staged a protest on Monday to convey their disappointment with low wages, unsafe working conditions and lack of hazard pay.
The workers are employed by Unifi Service, an Atlanta-headquartered company that has a contract to work for Delta and United Airlines at Missoula International Airport and several other airports in the region. The workers handle baggage, clean airplanes, work with customers at gates, de-ice airplanes and marshall planes on the tarmac.
"The final straw was when they called us unskilled workers," explained ramp agent Jared Bonney. Another worker, Joey Braun, said they have to complete a minimum of 140 hours of initial online training and have additional trainings on a regular basis.
The workers are usually required to show up at 4 a.m., but on Monday they informed management they would not be working that shift.
Bonney said management had gotten word of the walkout, and other Unifi workers from Kalispell and Spokane were brought in to fill the shift.
"We have been fighting to get a pay raise, and managers just object to it and say we are unskilled workers," Bonney said.
A call to a company manager in Missoula was not returned as of press time Monday, and an online submission form request for comment on the company's website on Monday was not returned as of press time.
The Missoula workers are paid $9.65 an hour to start and are capped at $10.40 an hour for people who have worked there six years.
They say the company's workers in other locations are paid more.
"What really stoked a fire is we learned that Kalispell got a contract hiring at $12.50 an hour and Great Falls is at that same rate and we're still stuck at our max cap for people working six years at $10.40," Braun said. "So they're bringing in employees from Spokane and Kalispell and paying them that higher rate plus $35 per diem, plus gas, plus a hotel instead of giving us a pay raise."
Job postings online for a passenger service agent and a ramp agent with Unifi in Kalispell start at $12.50 per hour.
The Unifi workers in Missoula aren't part of a union, Braun and Bonney said. They've both seen a lot of turnover because of the low wages.
"We've had a wild number of people leave just since working there the last six months," Braun said. "We haven't had a single new hire."
In fact, Braun and Bonney said employees who have worked for years at the Missoula airport have seen their pay decrease as the company negotiates different contracts with the airlines.
"We're fed up with it," Braun said. "Nothing's going to happen through usual channels so we're taking it into our own hands."
Bonney said they've been given flight benefits rather than raises, but housing price increases in Missoula have made that untenable.
"I sent out a letter explaining the exponential change in rent prices and cost of living in Missoula to managers," Bonney said. "At $9.65, it would take 110 hours working full time (a month) to be able to pay the median rent in Missoula. So that just leaves a little over a week's pay to pay for everything else like food, internet, car insurance and all that."
Bonney said there are safety and health issues with the job.
"Some of the employees we've hired are not top-tier employees and are not completely observant," he said. "We recently had an aircraft strike incident and the employee did not report it. It could have been even worse, sending an aircraft with unknown damage into the sky, if the pilots hadn't caught it."
He said the Unifi crew loads about 40,000 pounds worth of baggage onto airplanes on a "medium" day in the stifling heat of the summer.
"Employees work a 12-hour shift in the baking sun," he said. "Management tries to give us opportunities for water and meals. But we're constantly throwing bags. We're overworked and underslept. It creates a Swiss cheese effect. If one thing goes wrong, it slips through the cracks and things get exponentially worse."
He said they are clipped into harnesses to de-ice planes while hanging 30 feet in the air.
"We are not compensated with hazard pay or anything like that," he said.
About seven of Unifi's employees in Missoula, an entire shift, participated in the protest on Monday.
Kate Lacey was one of the protesters.
"I work incredibly hard for pennies," she said. "And I believe that we need to be treated fairly. And it's the customers' safety that's in our hands for $9.65 an hour. That's not acceptable. They won't come to the table."
Lacey, 53, is making $9.65 after a year of working for the company. She said she's trying to support a family and that her housing costs have gone up recently.
"By quite a bit actually," she said of housing cost increases. "It's very tough to make it work. "
She doesn't want to just quit.
"You know, I love my job," she said. "I love it here. I really, really do. I love my coworkers. I love working here, but this is not sustainable."
She said she handles baggage, cleans planes and also performs customer service, three completely different skill sets.
"We do it all," she said.
Brian Ellestad, the acting director of the Missoula International Airport, said he and his staff don't have any control over what Unifi pays its workers here. He does believe that the free market will eventually force the company to raise its wages here.
"It's a private business," he said. "My conversations with the company lead me to believe that there's probably a raise coming, but I don't have any firsthand knowledge of that. Both sides here, the workers and the company, are being very respectful. There have been no disruptions to passenger service. We respect the workers' rights."