A meager lifestyle for workers who cater to the high-flying

The airline industry could see record profits this year. Not flying so high? Low-wage airline food workers.

Rafael Leon could not believe his sudden reversal of fortune. So timely was his lucky break, on a December day in 2013, he suspected it must have been a case of divine intervention.

Leon, his wife and their two young sons had just been turned out of an apartment they shared in Hawthorne. The principal tenant complained that her utility bills were too high, so the Leons took their meager belongings and began walking away with nothing but a prayer.

That's when they saw the sign.

"It said one-bedroom apartment, $800," said Leon, 38, who lights up at the memory.

Actually, it wasn't an apartment in the conventional sense. It was a garage that had been divided into a bedroom, kitchen and parlor. But that's not an uncommon living arrangement in Los Angeles, where a low-wage economy and a high-rent market result in great hardship for thousands of working folks — the very people who keep the city running and the money flowing.

Leon, who works as a cook for an airline catering company specializing in overseas flights — at times preparing lobster and other delicacies for high-rolling first-class travelers — knew the rent would cost more than half his monthly income. But he convinced the landlord to let him pay the down payment over three months, and the family moved in.

"You want to see?" Leon asked last week, proud to show me the garage he calls home, including the bedroom the entire family shares.

Leon's pride extends to his job, and last week, he joined fellow employees in a one-day strike against Flying Food, where he has worked for two years and makes $10.25 an hour.

The employees allege they are paid less than required under the city's living-wage ordinance, that they are shorted on overtime pay, that they sometimes work in puddles of water because drains are clogged, that the company doesn't always provide insulated clothing for those who spend hours in food coolers, and that they must work harder to compensate for equipment and staff shortages.

Flying Food, by the way, denies the allegations.

For Leon, however, his main grievance is something quite basic.

"We want respect," he said. "My mom raised me with a higher standard of respect ... and taught me to be proud of what you do, even if it's cleaning toilets or scrubbing floors."

But Leon said some of his supervisors subject him and others to verbal abuse and rudely order them around.

"We want to be treated like human beings."

Flying Food spokesperson Courtney Harper said the company — which serves Air France, China Airlines and Virgin Australia, to name a few clients — is committed to providing "competitive pay and benefits as well as comfortable and safe working conditions." The base wage averages $12 an hour, she said, and employee benefits include vacations, an offer of health insurance and perks including free cafeteria meals.

Harper said the company is paying "the required wage to all employees who are subject to" the living-wage ordinance. But a class-action lawsuit against Flying Food contends otherwise. The employees are nonunion but are being represented by Unite Here, which says some of the 300-plus employees are not being paid the required equivalent of roughly $15 an hour in combined wages and benefits.

The two sides will have to fight it out in court, but regardless of who prevails, this dispute is yet another snapshot of a race-to-the-bottom manifest. The airline industry could see a record $25-billion profit this year, but airlines will still demand the lowest possible prices from competing suppliers, passengers will want lowest possible fares, and kitchen employees will slave away, out of sight and out of mind.

"These are, frankly, miserable jobs," said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. "I don't think you will see any catering companies on any list of the world's most admired businesses. The dog wags the tail, and they're part of the tail in the airline industry."

When I met with Leon and other Flying Food employees, I asked why they didn't leave and try to find better jobs. They rolled their eyes, as if I had no idea how hard it can be to find employment that gets you out of the garage and moves you up in the world. I was reminded of a passage from a book about policies that drive wealth inequality, "We Are Better Than This: How the Government SHOULD Spend Our Money," by Ed Kleinbard.

"We are the richest economy in the world," Kleinbard wrote, "but an extraordinary number of Americans live in poverty. We are the most unequal society of all large peer economies, and even more shocking, we are nowhere near the top in income mobility — the ability to climb from poor to rich (or to slide down the opposite side of that hill)."

If Rafael Leon was pleased to have found the converted garage, maybe it was because he doesn't expect it to get much better than that. But he felt good about speaking up and taking part in the one-day strike, as did two other Flying Food employees I visited.

In Lynwood, I met dishwasher Ramon Aguilar, 58, who makes $9 an hour and shares a small, unadorned apartment with two other catering company employees. He said that when his shift ends, he runs to catch the 11:03 train home. He sends every other check to El Salvador for his "protected ones," who need the money more than he does, including a friend who can't afford her treatment for cancer.

In Gardena, I met with Morena Henriquez, 25, who makes $9.54 an hour assembling food trays after nearly six years on the job. Henriquez shares a studio apartment with her parents and two brothers, all of whom work full time, and her mother's $11.15 per hour pay at a bakery is the highest in the family.

The Henriquez family has hung a curtain to divide the studio into two rooms. The parents and Morena sleep on one side of the curtain, and her brothers sleep on the other. Morena wiped away tears when I asked if the family has any expectation of a different, better life.

She said she's saving money and hoping to go to school, and she walked to the kitchen to grab a brochure for a college specializing in music careers. Morena dreams of working in music production.

"This is my motivation every morning," she said, holding the brochure aloft as her mother looked on, perched against the curtain in the tiny space that five working adults call home.

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