United Replaces Unionized Baggage Handlers With Minimum Wage Contractors, Things Instantly Fall Apart

“Free Market” hardliners may not like to hear it, but the old adage is true: “You get what you pay for,” and paying people next-to-nothing to do an extremely labor-intensive job won’t get you many willing applicants.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in Denver right now, where travel-wary passengers getting off their flights are discovering that their checked bags won’t be coming out in a timely fashion, if at all.

One survivor told the Denver Post that the situation was so bad in baggage claim that people were on the cusp of rioting.

“Ed Tonini of Louisville, Ky., flew to Denver on a United Express flight this week. His small bag, which he checked at the gate, took about 30 minutes to retrieve. But nothing could have prepared him for the baggage claim area, which he said was utter chaos.

‘It was a comedy. People were ready to riot — there were children crying and hundreds of people that were very testy, sitting on the floor, waiting, and no United people there to tell us what was going on,’ he said. ‘Our flight was a little over two hours, and it took more than two hours to get our bags.’

Two hours to get bags out into baggage claim? If you’re wondering how that is possible, this is how. In the underbelly of the airport, United Airlines’ employees meant to handle the bags were having a meltdown.

It’s hardly worth blaming the employees themselves, either. They are, almost to a person, new hires and woefully underpaid. United has recently made the mind-boggling decision to cut ties with its veteran airport staff and instead hire the lowest bidding contractor they could find. Initially, United’s ground crew consisted of unionized airport workers, with help from the employees of another airline, SkyWest, and paid an average of $12 to $24 an hour. Instead of paying employees those wages, United contracted a company called, “Simplicity,” which advertises wages of just $8 an hour — the lowest legal wage a company can give in the city of Denver.

Tonini, the poor passenger who watched in awe at the chaos at baggage claim, said he asked an employee what the deal is. The employee’s defeated response should say it all.

“‘I was told it’s been like this for the last few days,’ Tonini said. ‘The employee told me Simplicity has only about 20 percent of the people they need to do the work. They can’t get anyone to come work for $8 an hour, so that’s why they’re short-staffed.'”

The employee then begged Tonini to file a complaint… against his own company. That’s how terrible it is to work for minimum wage at Simplicity. The employees are actively rooting against it.

United Airlines isn’t the only victim here. Denver International Airport is taking a hit in reputation because of United’s attempt to cut corners, as well. At the heart of ski season (obviously a big deal in Colorado) travelers are being warned to stay away from Denver’s airport if they don’t want a nightmare. In another story in the Denver Post, a passenger lamented:

“‘I will definitely avoid going through Denver if I can help it,’ he said. ‘I was looking forward to seeing the airport and perhaps visiting the city as I hadn’t passed through that hub before, but the experience has soured me on this particular city’s airport.'”

Three days later, United still couldn’t find his luggage. Three days.

As is reported often, the airline industry is struggling right now. United, one of the largest air companies in the would, is never far from insolvency. With those financial considerations, it may be tempting for a company to look at their employees as a financial headache. The lesson here is that throwing workers under the bus to save a few bucks isn’t the answer.

It’s an obvious fact that all workers are not the same, and well-paid and well-treated ones tend to be much more productive than their cheaper counterparts. United estimated that firing its union workers (or forcing them to move to other positions) would save them around $1.6 million. Sounds like a lot — until you remember that a company is only as good as its workers, and if Denver International Airport is any indication, United may have cost itself millions more in its damaged reputation.

Feature image via Laura Keeney/Twitter

*This article originally erroneously stated that SkyWest is unionized. It is not. The flight, baggage, and desk crew that have been dismissed at the Denver Airport were, however.