DIA renovation leaves employee futures uncertain
Last Friday, more than 50 food and retail workers wearing red “Am I fired?” t-shirts rallied at Denver International Airport to demand transparency and job security in the face of a looming airport renovation project. The rally was organized by Unite Here Local 23, a local chapter of a national airport workers union.
In July, DIA selected a consortium of contractors, led by Spanish-based operator Ferrovial Airports, to renovate and develop the airport’s Jeppesen Terminal. The public-private partnership also includes Saunders Construction, the Colorado-based company responsible for renovating the Union Station redevelopment area and the Denver International Airport Hotel and Transit Center.
The development plan, called “the Great Hall Project,” is still in a six-month pre-development phase, during which specific details regarding the terminal’s construction and business operations will be decided. Ferrovial and its team will receive up to $9 million from the city for the plans and designs they develop during this phase alone.
Ultimately, the project will reconfigure and upgrade the airport’s terminal, which has both east and west sides. The remodel will relocate and expand the TSA screening areas, develop new check-in areas and create more spaces for shopping and food service. The project is intended to better optimize space and efficiency. Once the contract is finalized, Ferrovial will both construct and operate the new terminal.
Neither Ferrovial nor DIA has announced specific plans for the airport’s current restaurant and retail employees, who are alarmed at the lack of information.
Abel Villa, who currently works as a bartender, has worked several jobs at DIA for almost 18 years, including an airline cabin supervisor, a restaurant manager and a server. “DIA has become my second home,” he said.
When murmurs of DIA’s renovation plan started bubbling up among workers about four months ago, Villa began to worry about his future at the airport. He doesn’t know how long the renovation is going to take; all he knows is that all businesses inside the terminal will be closed during construction. Worse, Villa doesn’t even know if he is going to be able to work at DIA again after the project is completed.
“I do understand things change over time, things need to be modernized. And I’m not against that,” Villa said. But he is wary of being laid off: Losing his job in his home country of Mexico is what originally led him to seek work in the United States. Of his job security at DIA, he says, “We still haven’t heard anything from them yet, and that worries me.”
Adam Yalowitz, a senior research analyst for the Unite Here union, told The Independent that the privatization of the main terminal is “unprecedented.” DIA is essentially giving up control over which restaurants will stay in business, he said, and “workers want to make sure they don’t lose their jobs.”
Critics of the project have also raised concerns about transparency. A recent article by the Denver Post Editorial Board criticized DIA for “keeping too many secrets” on a makeover plan that is expected to cost millions of dollars.
Ferrovial’s financial record also raised some eyebrows. Two of its subsidiaries, who operated two U.S. toll road projects in Texas and Indiana, filed for bankruptcy this year. However, DIA says it had a global financial advisory firm KPMG independently analyze and verify Ferrovial’s financial solvency.
In a separate interview with The Colorado Independent, DIA media representative Heath Montgomery pointed out that accusations about Ferrovial’s previous financial history were broad and inconclusive. “There were specific details about those [failing] projects that were being lost in the conversation about the company’s financial situation,” he said.
Denver City Council member Robin Kniech gave a speech at Friday’s rally, saying that she was “in solidarity with the folks.” She told the demonstrators, “You have strong support from us,” meaning City Council. “We have been open to the airport about our expectations. We will continue to do that,” she said. The security of concession workers’ jobs was one of the several concerns city council members raised on a city council hearing regarding the DIA terminal’s renovation plan.
In an interview with The Independent, Kniech addressed the importance of union organizing, as well as the non-interruption of the airport’s daily operation. She said city council has been focused on not only worker retention, but also on achieving a labor peace agreement.
“I’m here in solidarity with the workers, but I don’t think it’s good for the airport that we have actions going on,” she said. Kniech recalled peaceful negotiations between airport workers and their employers at the airport hotel in the past, which were completed without disrupting the airport’s daily operations. “They had their negotiations, and it was private. We never bothered our travelling public with that.”
At the end of the rally, a union member delivered a banner saying “We Want to Stay at DIA” to an unnamed airport representative. The representative promised that the airport would consider workers’ voices during the renovation process.
Montgomery said that it’s still early to have a conversation about job security, since the project is still in the negotiation phase. He believes that as details on the renovation plan are revealed in the next six months, people will gain a better understanding of both the project and the “ample” job opportunities it will bring to DIA.
The current restaurant and retail businesses are in monthly contracts with DIA, and Ferrovial will have the power to decide which businesses will be included in the renovated terminal. But Montgomery says the current workers need not worry: Their reliability and extensive work experience at DIA makes them extremely valuable to both new and existing businesses.
“There are about 400 jobs open in this airport on any given day,” Montgomery said. “For the people who worry about not being able to be employed at the airport, I don’t think it’s a concern at this point.”
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