Chicago-based United Airlines Facing Food Worker Protests

Airport catering workers call for affordable health care in new national campaign

CHICAGO — Airline catering workers in Chicago and across the U.S. say their healthcare is too expensive, leaving many uninsured or under-insured.  They’re launching an unprecedented national campaign calling on major airlines such as United– many of which are reporting record profits – to fix the problem.   

Today workers in O’Hare’s catering kitchens rallied near United Airlines’ downtown headquarters. They delivered a letter and photo petition to United’s CEO representatives on behalf of over 10,000 airline catering workers at 42 U.S. airports, requesting that United earmark one nickel per passenger ticket towards more affordable healthcare options for workers.  Additional campaign launch events are taking place in 17 cities across the U.S, coordinated by UNITE HERE, a union representing 27,000 airline workers in the airline food industry. In Chicago, Local 1 represents approximately 900 airline catering workers.

“I pay more than $400 each month, almost an entire week’s paycheck, for insurance,” said Natasha Hill, a 19-year employee who services planes for United, Delta and other airlines at O’Hare International Airport. “On top of that I have to pay $10,000 out of pocket before my family even starts seeing the benefits.  But I pay because my two sons need health insurance.”

Employed in every major airport, airline food workers clean dishes, prepare meals, ensure security and transport the food and beverages consumed aboard thousands of flights each day.  They play an integral role in the smooth operation of airline itineraries, but according to a 2014 analysis of nearly 10,000 contracted airline catering workers nationally showed over 40 percent make less than $10.10 per hour.

Such low wages position industry workers between a rock and a hard place: unable to pay the premiums of so-called “minimum value plans,” but ineligible to purchase more affordable options from health care exchanges.  Over one-quarter of workers surveyed by UNITE HERE reported being uninsured.  In other cases, they pay annual premiums for company offered health care of over $1,900 for individuals and over $5,000 for families – all on top of an additional $5,000 minimum deductible.  As a result, many workers struggle to make ends meet: in the aforementioned survey, 25% of airline catering workers reported receiving some sort of public assistance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. airline industry is booming: United earned $1.97 billion net income in 2014.  Yet United and other airlines continue to squeeze the food workers in their supply chain, paying catering companies an average of only $2.50 per passenger for food—nearly $2.00 less than 2001 rate for similar services.   As profits soar, catering workers are seeking their fair share.

For more information on the campaign, visit