6,000 Denver airport workers make under $15 an hour. A new ballot effort could change that.

Amelton Archelus, who has worked at DIA for 19 years, speaks Aug. 23 at a rally for higher wages at the airport. (Photo by Phil Cherner)

The Denver International Airport workers who prepare your in-flight dinners and push your loved ones’ wheelchairs through the terminal don’t, in many cases, earn livable wages.

A new ballot initiative, launched at a rally Thursday morning in front of the Denver City and County Building, aims to establish a DIA-specific minimum wage of $15 for the more than 6,000 airport workers making less than that.

To qualify their proposal for Denver’s municipal election in May 2019, they’ll need to secure 4,726 signatures, and that effort began today.

“After 19 years of working at DIA airport, neither my wife or I make $15 an hour,” said Amelton Archelus, a Haitian immigrant who works in food services for United Airlines. “After 19 years, I still struggle to pay my bills, to pay my rent on time. I have to tell my kids they can’t go to a movie (so) I can buy the groceries.

“I’ve given much of my life to this airport,” he added. “My wife and I and all the airport workers who make DIA run deserve more.”

Most DIA workers — there are an estimated 30,000 of them, in total — do make at least $15 an hour, according to research by the New York-based labor union Unite Here, the organizer of this effort.

About 1,500 of those workers are employees of the city, as opposed to employees of the federal government, airlines, concessionaires or others doing business at DIA. Airport spokeswoman Emily Williams said she believes all 1,500 city workers already make at least $15 an hour.

Thursday’s rally included about 40 people wearing Unite Here shirts and waving signs, though at least about half of those people were with Unite Here, and not actual DIA workers, organizers confirmed.

Asked if some workers may be hesitant to join the campaign for fear of retribution, Archelus said he did not think so. His colleagues generally feel “more strongly than I do,” he said, about the need for higher pay, and their employers know that.

If Denver voters approved the ballot initiative in May, DIA worker wages will be increased in phases, reaching the $15 level in 2021.

A spokeswoman for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has not yet responded to a request for comment on the initiative Thursday.

“For me, $15 isn’t just money,” Teresita Felix, who also works in food services for United, said at the rally. “It’s an acknowledgement of my dignity and contribution to the Denver airport.”

DIA is the city’s biggest economic driver, and Denver plans to invest more than $3 billion in airport upgrades in coming years. Felix said she has about 40 relatives who also work at DIA, and that they feel left behind amid the growth.

“My daughter and I have to share a house with 20 other people, including seven other children, because I cannot afford to live in Denver on my own,” she said. “Between rent and bills, there’s just not enough money to go around.”

The minimum wage in Colorado stands now at $10.20 per hour, though it will be bumped to $12 by 2020 thanks to a voter-approved 2016 ballot measure.

Many DIA employees, including some who, like Archelus, have worked there for more than a decade, are earning the state minimum wage now.

Those workers often must also cover their own transportation to the airport, Unite Here said.

Should Denver voters support this effort in May, DIA would become the country’s 16th airport with an airport-specific minimum wage.


  1. Why stop at $15/hour? Why not $50/hour? Then those airport workers’ lives would be three times better.

    After all, it’s free money. No one will have to come up with the extra money. We’ll just plant some more money trees.

    Isn’t economics magical?

  2. You other commentors need to do the math. You’re stuck in the ’80’s.

    America has a rising inflation, and stagnant wage problem.

    At $15/hr, 40/hrs/wk = $600/wk, average $2,600/month, $31,200/year (gross).
    Less taxes (est 25%) = $450/wk, average $1,950/month, $23,400/year (net).

    Now deduct living expenses:
    Average rental in Denver = $1,220 – $1,634/mo (as of July 2018).
    Average used car payment = $350/mo
    Median new car payment = $630/mo
    Average auto insurance = $104/mo
    Average utilities = $128/mo (electricity, heating, water and garbage)
    Average health insurance payment = $313 (or $207 w/subsidies)
    Average internet bill = $47/mo

    Already, at the lowest prices, we’re at $2,056/mo (or -$106/mo in the hole).
    At the highest prices, we’re up to $2,856.
    And that doesn’t even include food, gas, clothing, entertainment, household essential/toiletries, sales tax, etc.

    So, at $15/hr, you’re placing workers in a situation where they’ll likely need food stamps, energy assistance, and possibly rent (housing) assistance.

    How does that help?
    So you want more of the burden shifted towards you, via evern higher taxes to pay for subsidies for low wages?
    Is that your answer?

    CEO-to-employee pay is at record hight, surpassing 350:1.

    Fewer people are making more money, but using tax loopholes to avoid paying their share of taxes, with more people making less money.
    Meanwhile, the U.S. is facing a record $1.3 TRILLION budget deficit in 2022, as fewer workers, and less pay for those fewer workers, means less revenue for the government.

    Democrat or Republican, the ultra-wealthy are gaining ever more wealth, the ultra-powerful ever more power.
    Meanwhile, the rest of us are losing pace to highly underreported inflation, while wages are remaining stagnant, as we also continue to lose ever more freedoms, rights, liberties, and justice.

    As per Adam Smith, sustainable capitalism requires temperance. Resources are limited. The more a few make, the less there is for the rest. This wealth accumulation becomes wholly unsustainable.
    America (and thus most of the world) is reliant on a debt-based economy. Money exists solely for the purpose of covering growing debt.
    With scarce resources (including capital), the only way others make more, is by taking more away from others.

    It is wholly unsustainable.

    It is easy to argue from ignorance. A lot more difficult when you actually examine the facts & realities.

  3. $15 an hour probably isnt’ enough. Anyone working full time should be able to support themselves without public assistance. We can either pay people a working wage or we can maintain taxpayer-funded assistance programs to keep people from starving. It’s one way or the other. People prefer to support themselves.

    All of those additional wages get plowed right back into the local economy because those workers need to spend every penny of it to get by. It’s an economic phenomenon known as “The Multiplier Effect.” It is why infrastructure spending is far and away the most stimulative of any government spending, and why good wages and benefits raise all boats, unlike tax breaks for the rich that do the exact opposite.

  4. The average bachelor’s degree holders earns $19.18 per hour. The average high school grad earns $14 per hour. People who want higher wages need to get skills that the economy values, whether that be trade skills or higher education skills. You cannot change one section of the economic income level without having an impact on the other income levels. They are intrinsically linked and don’t operate in a vacuum. The open market economy will determine the value of the labor, not some random value.

  5. soon to be 4,500 employees making $20/hr. what people don’t realize is that the new wages will force downsizing and health care cuts.

  6. Not really. It’s not a living wage that force downsizing and cuts to healthcare. Any attempt to maintain an artificially contrived profit margin based on surpassed wages surely may result in changes to benefits or workforce size, but that’s a profit call…not a people call. That’s not a valid causal argument.

    Same could be said for airlines when they don’t raise wages during times of reduced fuel costs. They simply care more about the profit than their people. Is that the workers’ fault? What about not reducing fares…it’s not as if they’re passing those savings on to the consumers either. Is that manipulation to pad the profit margin the consumer’s fault?

    Machinations involving flexible costs in the form of labor, fuel, materials, etc, give us quite the window into corporate motivations that are hard to rationalize. Which is of course why we have to force companies to do the right thing sometimes. They simply refuse to do so without coercion.

    That is the problem.

    In this regard, at some point Americans are going to have to realize that they’ve been duped. You’ve been made to believe that expecting a service like healthcare, transportation or education, without the extraordinary amount of extra cost we pay upon the altar of profit, is evil or unpatriotic or whatever.

    That’s the worst kind of stupid when you consider we’re the only ones amongst our global peers who are still falling for that con job.

    The sad irony is that the folks against modernizing our healthcare, transportation and education systems to more closely resemble the rest of the advanced world’s, are some of the same people who complain the loudest about our hospitals and schools.

    These are the same folks who also happen to vote against bond issues for infrastructure, while complaining about the traffic…or who vote for trickle down economic policies, then whine that real wages aren’t going up for the middle class.

    Who convinced them to be their own worst enemy? Who told them that a decent profit margin was necessary to educate a child or heal a broken arm?

    Wake up and smell the exploitation.

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