The Plight of the Sky Chefs: Essential Labor in the Pandemic Age

Do corporations have an obligation to keep employees after taking billions in bailouts?

Essential and unseen — the caterers that make sure meals and drinks are ready for your Delta flight. Now more than 300 are unemployed.

“So everybody [is] like ‘Do we have a job?’” says Shandolyn Lewis, a single mom who lives in the Five Points neighborhood in Northwest Detroit. She was the International Coordinator with LSG Sky Chefs and has been with the company for nine years.

“Delta chose to switch catering companies in the middle of a pandemic?” Lewis says. “Like, no, you took the money to keep airport workers in jobs.”

“We’ve spent huge amounts of money over the past year to subsidize employment in businesses. And whenever that directly or indirectly doesn’t come out the way you intended for it, it raises ethical questions.” –Marick Masters, Wayne State Professor at the Mike Ilitch School of Business

Some of those workers — who adjusted to COVID-19 safety protocols — are changing too.

Through a subcontractor, Delta is making its first local catering change in decades. The airline is moving away from the union-organized Sky Chefs and will instead use DO&CO — an Austria-based non-union caterer.

Courtesy UNITE HERE Local 24

That’s upset UNITE HERE Local 24 President Nia Winston.

“These workers got up every single day with pride and dignity and went to work to make sure that there was no loss of any type of thing that a passenger would normally get on a regular flight,” Winston says. “They continued to do that job every day with pride.”

Like the rest of the country’s airlines, Delta took billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds. Ideally, it was for worker retention and company survival. Delta officials didn’t want to go on tape and answer questions about the change in caterers but they did release a statement:

“Delta periodically makes vendor changes to ensure excellent customer service.”

Plus the airline says DO & CO — the new caterer — will offer higher wages and benefits:

“We understand they are accepting applications for open positions with increased pay and benefits up to 35% higher than the current catering partner.”

At a recent DO & CO job fair, applicants — many of whom are currently Sky Chefs caterers — said no one wanted to talk salary and benefits. And those benefits, such as medical insurance, are important.

Listen: Sky Chefs workers share how the catering change has affected them.

Eric Williams worked for LSG Sky Chefs for over 26 years. He recounted what he was told at the job fair to the board members of the Wayne County Airport Authority.

“I was told I wasn’t gonna have insurance if I do get hired for about two months. I’m currently taking diabetes medication and my meds cost $900 without my insurance.”

Another longtime Sky Chefs employee Barb Lorranger echoed those sentiments.

“As of March 15, we have no medical insurance. We have nothing. And I also take medicine for blood pressure, my COPD … That’s all coming out of your pocket when you’re unemployed.”

Board members seemed sympathetic to the worker’s ordeal, but ultimately have little control over the decision.

Even though some Sky Chefs workers are being hired by the new caterer, Winston says both companies should respect their commitments.

“We think that DO & CO, and also Delta, should honor their public investment in the airline industry by retaining the workers.”

Ethical Questions

But do corporations — after taking billions of public money — have an obligation to retain workers? Marick Masters, Wayne State Professor at the Mike Ilitch School of Business, says it’s all iffy.

“We’ve spent huge amounts of money over the past year to subsidize employment in businesses,” Masters says. “And whenever that directly or indirectly doesn’t come out the way you intended for it, it raises ethical questions.”

Shandolyn Lewis
Shandolyn Lewis

As for a switch to a non-organized caterer, Masters says it’s not necessarily union-busting.

“It can be part of a deliberate union avoidance strategy. And it can also be part of a cost-reduction strategy and they may go hand in glove.”

Whether or not Delta and its subcontractor are planning to suppress a union workforce means little to the employees who are now out of a job. About 100 former Sky Chefs workers – including Eric Williams — have been hired by DO & CO.

But Shandolyn Lewis isn’t among them. Lewis wasn’t breaking the bank at SkyChef. She made $16 an hour. It wasn’t her only job. She works part time elsewhere in the airport.

Still, Lewis remains philosophical.

“Sky Chefs is a name but the workers make the company.”

The change from Sky Chefs to DO & CO took place on Monday. Passengers on Delta flights likely didn’t notice a difference, but the hundreds of workers who were laid off certainly did.

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  • Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.