Molly Gomez has worked as a bartender at the San Francisco International Airport, the seventh busiest airport in the US and one of the busiest in the world, for about 40 years.

“A hamburger costs $20 and I’m getting $15 an hour. It’s been a really rough couple of years out here at the airport.”

Molly Gomez, worker at San Francisco International Airport

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the restaurant in the airport where she worked, she lost her job. Ultimately, Gomez was hired on by a different restaurant and contractor in the airport in August 2021. She caught COVID-19 shortly after returning to work—and, because she was employed by a different contractor, she was ineligible for health insurance at the time and received no sick pay for the two weeks of work she missed. 

For the past three years, Gomez and around 1,000 other food and beverage service workers at the airport—represented by UNITE HERE Local 2—have been working without a union contract. (Around 30 employers at 84 different restaurants, cafes, and lounges across the airport negotiate collectively with the union.) As a result, they’ve received no yearly wage increases during that time. In August, workers voted 99.7% in favor of a strike authorization—and, on Sept. 26, they hit the picket line, shutting down the majority of restaurants in the airport. 

Workers are pushing for better wages, healthcare, and pension benefits, while employers at the airport have been pushing for takeaways in contract negotiations since November 2021. The union has claimed the majority of workers make $17.05 an hour, just over the current minimum wage in San Francisco ($16.99 an hour). The airport’s minimum wage is listed at $19.15 an hour. 

Gomez’s current wage is $15.10 an hour. As negotiations have dragged out for the past three years and workers’ wages have stayed flat, food and beverage prices in the airport have increased significantly, with high markups.

“A hamburger costs $20 and I’m getting $15 an hour. It’s been a really rough couple of years out here at the airport,” said Gomez. “All of them are raising their prices and not raising our wages, so we’ve been totally disrespected and left out.”

On Friday,  Sept. 16, dozens of workers led a protest outside of Terminal 3 at the airport, which resulted in the arrest of 41 protesters for blocking traffic. 

“Workers are just fed up,” added Gomez. “Some of our employees are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet and they’re sleeping in [their] cars, too, because they live so far away to come back to work. We really need the public on our side on this because they really need to take care of us. We’ve taken care of them. People get up at three in the morning to go to work and the business is coming back; they are making money again and we are not.”

“We really need the public on our side on this because they really need to take care of us. We’ve taken care of them. People get up at three in the morning to go to work and the business is coming back; they are making money again and we are not.”

Molly Gomez, worker at San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco has among the highest rental prices in the US. According to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a single individual living in the city with no children needs to make $30.81 an hour while working full-time to support themselves.  

“Nobody can pay their bills or feed their kids on $17 an hour,” said Anand Singh, president of UNITE HERE Local 2. “Working at SFO used to mean you had a good job, but most of the airport’s fast-food workers haven’t seen a raise in three years. The hamburger or burrito an airport worker serves often costs more than what she makes in an entire hour. Nine months of negotiations got us nowhere, and SFO’s food service workers are tired of working two or even three jobs just to survive.”

Lucinda To works two jobs at the airport—as a lounge attendant at the United Club and a server at Cat Cora’s Kitchen—often working a 5AM to 1PM shift and another from 3PM to 10:30PM.

“By the time I get off at 10:30PM, I need to take a shuttle to the parking home and then drive home to San Jose, and then just have three hours to sleep, and at 3AM I have to wake up and get ready to go back to work [and] drive back here,” said To. “Sometimes I need to sleep in the car at the airport because I’ll get four hours of sleep, [but] if I go home, I’ll only get three hours of sleep.” 

But, To explained, it gets worse: workers have to pay for parking at the airport, in addition to their low pay, and they often work holidays with no extra pay. She also pointed out the discrepancy in the costs of a basic meal at the airport exceeding her hourly wage. 

“I cannot survive. I need to support my family, that’s why I need to work two jobs,” she added. 

SFO Airport and a press representative for the food and beverage contractors did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Starting Tuesday, Sept. 27, flight attendants began picketing at airports around the US over poor working conditions and pay. Southwest flight attendants are holding pickets at 11 airports around the US ahead of their new union contract negotiations. United Airlines flight attendants are holding pickets at 15 airports over flight delays, scheduling issues, and flight cancellations.

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a contributor to The Guardian and a journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.