‘Every door you knock on is closed.’ Out of work, airport workers fear what’s next

‘Every door you knock on is closed.’ Out of work, airport workers fear what’s next
Planes sit idle at the American Airlines hanger at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in on Friday, March 20. (Source: Josh Komer/ Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Danielle Chemtob/ Charlotte Observer) - It started with a short shift last weekend. Then, HMSHost, Jeanette McClure’s employer at Charlotte’s airport, asked her to take the next day off.

A few days later, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he would close all restaurants and bars except for takeout and delivery. HMS operates airport concessions across the country — including where McClure works, at the Tequileria restaurant in Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

After Cooper’s announcement, HMS closed the restaurant McClure had worked at for four years, and she was unsure of her fate with the company. She was furloughed indefinitely.

It’s been a week since she has earned any income.

Her $950 rent was already a struggle for her and her husband to pay, even when she was working two jobs, the other in airport security. He travels for work but hasn’t been able to do so because of the virus.

She’s tried calling her landlord and charity groups like United Way and Crisis Assistance Ministry. But so far, she hasn’t been able to find help.

“It’s like every door you knock on is closed, or it might be open a little bit but you can’t get in the door,” she said.

McClure is one of over 600 employees of HMSHost at Charlotte Douglas who are out of work, the union that represents them said this past week. Workers have either been laid off, furloughed or placed on temporary, unpaid leave, the union said.

HMSHost has not responded to multiple requests for comment. The Maryland-based, privately-held company employs over 40,000 people and has $3.5 billion in sales annually, according to its website.

HMSHost informed employees late Thursday that they could use their accrued vacation and sick time, and encouraged them to apply for unemployment, according to the union. HMSHost officials said they would provide more information to workers on Monday via a website, the union said.

‘I’M SCARED’

The HMSHost cutbacks are part of the economic toll that the coronavirus outbreak is taking on the state, as the government enacts measures to help prevent its spread.

Around 42,000 people filed for unemployment in North Carolina this past week, most of which listed COVID-19 as the reason.

When David Dockery, a bartender at the airport’s Carolina Beer Company, showed up for his shift Monday, he was ushered into a meeting with corporate executives from HMS. He said they told him the airport’s restaurants and bars were closing, and could either take temporary leave or be laid off.

Dockery decided to take the leave and use his accrued vacation hours. But that will only last him about a week. Then, he said he’ll have to take the layoff and apply for unemployment.

Dockery provides for his wife and two children. He spends $750 on a healthcare premium, has a $500 mortgage for his three-bedroom house in Gastonia, electricity bills, a car payment and other expenses associated with taking care of a family of four.

He’s afraid of what will happen to his family.

Because all of the restaurants and bars are closed, he can’t go out and get another job in his field. He earned a decent living in his bartending job at the airport — between $1,200 to $1,500 a week.

“I’m scared because it’s very likely that I’m going to lose my health coverage,” he said. “I’m scared because once this month is over... all those bills are still coming. I have no option to pay them. I have no income.”

The union has asked that any relief for airlines or concession companies include guarantees for workers.

The White House has released a $50 billion bailout proposal for airlines to mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus, which would curb raising executive pay until the funds are paid back. But Democrats and airline labor leaders want the limits to go further, and the aid package to include worker protections.

Dockery isn’t just afraid. He’s angry.

“This is a multi-billion dollar corporation,” Dockery said. “They could take care of us if they wanted to. But they don’t.”

HARD CHOICES

McClure is worried she won’t have enough money to help her daughter, who doesn’t have health insurance, pay for her medications.

Her daughter suffers from Lupus and has had a heart attack. Though not an employee of HMSHost, she saw her hours cut at a Bojangles’ in the airport. At the same time, McClure feared for her daughter when she was still reporting to work.

“Sometimes,” McClure said. “it’s a choice between money and your life.”

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