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Phoenix Leaders To Airport Businesses: 'You Guys Can Do Better'

LAUREN GILGER: Some Phoenix city leaders recently put a multinational corporation on notice. They told HMS Host, which operates two dozen restaurants and coffee shops at Sky Harbor Airport, to provide written documentation involving furloughed workers before the council votes on more rent relief. Here's Councilwoman Thelda Williams, who chairs the city's transportation subcommittee.

THELDA WILLIAMS: I will tell you from my perspective, this is not a council or subcommittee that you want to play games with. I think it's very important that people have listened and follow through on what they have said they will do in a very timely fashion.

GILGER: So what was HMS Host asked to do? KJZZ's Christina Estes joins us now to explain more. Good morning, Christina.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Good morning.

GILGER: So you've been covering the pandemic's impact on Sky Harbor, which I know has been hit so hard economically in all of this. But in this case, we're talking specifically about food and beverage outlets here, right?

ESTES: Yes. And they've taken a beating because passenger levels remain down about 50% lower than pre-pandemic levels. Food and beverage enterprises continue to struggle. Last week, the interim aviation director, Charlene Reynolds, told the transportation subcommittee average monthly sales before COVID were more than $20 million. Now they're $4 million.

GILGER: Wow. And you've reported on furloughs and layoffs related to the airport when it comes to HMS Host and SSP — which is the other major restaurant operator there — we're talking almost 1,000 employees, right? But business seems to have picked up since its lowest point in April. Some workers have been called back. Where does everything stand now? Do we know how many?

ESTES: As of last week, SSP said it had recalled 134 employees at Sky Harbor. HMS Host said it had recalled 389 of its 800 employees.

GILGER: OK, so if employees are being called back, what's the issue?

ESTES: How long they'll be furloughed versus permanently laid off. First, some background. Four months, employees of HMS Host and SSP have been calling in to city council meetings during public comment and expressing concerns about losing health insurance and uncertainty about when they'll return to work. They have a few strong advocates on the council. Vice Mayor Betty Guardado has been the most vocal. She was a union organizer and work with airport employees before being elected last year. Here's Guardado talking to Stephen Douglas. He's vice president of business development for HMS Host.

BETTY GUARDADO: There were moments where we had a good relationship, moments where it was a little challenging. And right now, like, I'm hoping that HMS Host will step up to the plate the same way that SSP did.

GILGER: Christina, what does she mean by "step up to the plate"?

ESTES: The subcommittee asked HMS Host to follow in the footsteps of SSP, which operates 31 food and beverage outlets at Sky Harbor. Back in July, SSP said, it could start permanently laying off more than 400 furloughed employees in September. But SSP has since changed that. Through an agreement with the union, the layoff date has been pushed back to November 2022, two years from now.

GILGER: What's the situation like with HMS Host?

ESTES: Guardado says furloughed employees were told they could be permanently laid off starting next March. She asked HMS Host to do what SSP did, push the date back. Now, hanging over all of this is the issue of rent relief. Since April, the airport has provided significant relief — businesses are paying based on a percentage of sales only. Right now, that rent relief expires at the end of December. But early next month, the council is expected to vote on extending it. For these two companies, it adds up to millions. Again, here's Guardado addressing HMS host.

GUARDADO: I want to be able to support you guys, but for me, my heart is always going to be with the workers, especially with this pandemic and COVID. Being here in Arizona, those workers need you guys to do the best that you guys can do. And I know that you guys can do better. And I'm pretty sure that you guys will, but I really, really need you guys to do that.

ESTES: Her message was echoed by councilwomen Laura Pastor and Thelda Williams, who told HMS Host it's important that the company send the city a letter by Dec. 1, saying it will extend employee callback by seniority before the council discusses more rent relief next month.

GILGER: And how did the company respond to that very specific request?

ESTES: Darrell Benton, who is executive vice president of business development for HMS Host, said he understood the message. So we'll see what happens in a few weeks.

GILGER: All right. Lots to watch for there. That is KJZZ's Christina Estes joining us this morning. Christina, thanks so much for your reporting on this.

ESTES: You're welcome, Lauren.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story's headline has been updated for clarity. 

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.