As many as 100 restaurant workers, laid off because of the pandemic’s near shutdown of air travel, rallied at Orlando International Airport on Wednesday, calling for fair standards for being rehired and for stronger health protections when on the job.
The HMSHost veteran employees of restaurants such as Starbucks, Chick-fil-A and Outback Steakhouse had been on the verge of voting on unionizing when mass layoffs occurred in March.
With written comment and short speeches, workers called for social and economic justice.
“HMSHost workers are here today because we are a union, we are a family, and this is our airport and these are our jobs,” said Kourtney Monroe, who had worked at Outback.
They cited the relief from rents and fees that the airport is granting temporarily to airlines, rental-car companies and concessionaires, such as HMSHost, the largest operator of restaurants at Orlando International Airport.
The publicly owned airport authority should make worker protections a requirement tied to waivers or deferrals of rent and fees, said Susan Valentine, a political director for Unite Here, a hospitality union.
The Orlando airport authority confirmed that it has a pending application from HMSHost for a waiver of rent for May, June and July worth a total of $2.5 million.
HMSHost provided a statement Wednesday, saying the company covered “health and welfare benefits” for furloughed workers from March to June 4.
“But given we have little to no sales, we must make difficult decisions to keep our business going and preserve our ability to bring back furloughed associates in the future,” the company said in its statement. “We remain committed to bringing back as many associates as possible when travel resumes to normal levels, but there is not enough work to justify recalling many or all of our associates at this time.”
Orlando’s airport was ranked last year as the nation’s 10th busiest and early this year had surpassed a volume of more than 50 million passengers annually.
With the sudden collapse of domestic and international air travel through March, the nation’s airports lost 95 percent of their passengers.
Most major restaurants and retailers at Orlando International Airport remain closed, although counts of outbound passengers passing through TSA security have recovered from several thousand a day in April to more than 10,000 on some days this month.
Orlando airport director Phil Brown has warned that it could take as many as five years for the airport to rebound to pre-pandemic activity, which included more than 900 flights daily.
A server at Outback, Jerrica Dolle, said workplace racial justice is critical.
“We will no longer tolerate the disrespect, discrimination, and we want equal opportunity for all workers no matter what race,” Dolle said.
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