Sen. Catherine Pugh speaks at a press conference at BWI announcing release of report detailing racial inequality among BWI’s concessions workers.

African-Americans are disproportionately represented among fast food workers at Maryland’s BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, while White workers are far more likely to be employed in the often higher paying roles of servers and bartenders, according to a report released by UNITE HERE, a service employees union working to organize concessions workers at BWI, and the Maryland NAACP.

The report, titled ‘A Missed Opportunity’ and released at a press conference on July 28, surveyed 437 of the estimated 830 hourly food and retail workers at BWI, and found that African Americans hold 83 percent of the lower paying fast food jobs at the airport, and 63 percent of the back of house positions—such as dishwasher—at the airport’s full service restaurants, despite making up only 59 percent of the concessions workforce.

In contrast, White employees, who make up 22 percent of the concessions workforce, account for 55 percent of the front of house staff—such as bartenders and servers—at the airport’s full service restaurants, positioning them not only as the face of the airport, but also in the most lucrative available concessions jobs.

A separate survey conducted between 2013 and 2014 by UNITE HERE had found that the median wage of employees at BWI’s concessions providers was $8.50 an hour, a low-wage burden this new report has found to fall disproportionately on Black workers.

The report quotes a White server, Jeremy Pollard, of the airport’s Vino Volo wine bar, as saying, “My hourly wage is six dollars per hour, but as a server I have the opportunity to earn tips, which average out to an additional $20 per hour.  In the year and a half since I’ve worked here we’ve hird seven new servers, but none of the workers in my restaurant are African-American.”

Natalie Hickman, an African-American employee at the airport’s McDonald’s location who is currently on personal leave, said the report documents what she saw every day working at BWI.

“If I go sit at Silver[ Diner] or DuClaw , I’m being served by White servers,” said Hickman.  “I never see an African-American, or I never see a Latino come up to me or a Hispanic come up to me and serve me, it’s always a White person.  I see it almost every day.”


Workers hold signs displaying findings from UNITE HERE’s report finding racial disparities among BWI’s concessions workforce.

UNITE HERE has engaged in a concerted effort to organize concessions workers at BWI since 2012, and the report is part of its ongoing efforts to shed light on the limitations of the developer model currently employed by the state of Maryland to manage the airport’s concessions program.

In 2004, during the administration of Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the airport shifted from a model in which a single company, HMS Host, ran all of the airport’s concessions to a developer model in which a developer, in this case AirMall USA, determines which concessions companies to bring to the airport, and controls and leases the space available for concessions companies to operate in, according to Bhav Tibrewal, director of the UNITE HERE Airport Group, the union’s policy and development arm.

AirMall does not hire workers directly, simply leasing space for companies to operate in.  However, since they control the available space for concessions operators at the airport, they are in a position to require a fair wage, or police potential discrimination, according to Tibrewal.

Meghan Cohorst, a spokesperson with UNITE HERE, similarly pointed out that, while simple racism largely accounts for the report’s findings, that fact alone does not absolve the state or AirMall of any responsibility.

“We’re not in a post-race society, and at the same time, if we’re turning a blind eye to the problem, then it’s never going to improve,” said Cohorst.  “We’re not saying that AirMall and the developer model are responsible for racial inequality.  What this report is trying to do is share this reality that this is what’s happening at the airport, and now that it’s out there, hold AirMall and hold the Maryland Aviation Authority responsible for taking steps to fix it.”

For Tibrewal, Maryland’s use of the developer model has deprived the state of a potential tool for the economic development of its largest city, Baltimore, which provides many of the airport’s employees.

“Baltimore is a majority African-American city, everyone knows it’s extremely impoverished and full of struggle,” said Tibrewal.  “You would think that maybe the biggest piece of infrastructure owned and operated by the state of Maryland, BWI airport, would be a source of relief to that type of poverty and those types of dynamics.  Instead, what we’re seeing here is a continuation, and maybe even a cause, for some of that poverty.”

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO