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New Plan For City Workers At Lambert Released By Privatization Working Group

St. Louis Lambert International Airport. August 2018
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis city officials are considering whether to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport. A private company could begin operations of the airport as early as next year.

A new plan for civil service employees at St. Louis Lambert International Airport aims to alleviate fears about what will happen to jobs if the city leases the airport to a private operator.

The preliminary program, developed by the St. Louis Airport Advisory Working Group, lays out three options for the 550 city employees at the airport: They could stay on with a five-year job guarantee under the private operator, apply with preference for another city job or stay in their current position during a two-year transition period.

Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge and other members of the working group hosted several sessions Monday explaining the plan and taking questions from city employees.

During a meeting of the working group on Tuesday, she noted the sessions were attended by more than 150 employees, who had lots of questions.

“Some of the questions came out about, ‘Are you doing this because it’s a done deal?’ and we had to reiterate numerous times that, ‘No, we’re doing this so we can stop the bleeding at the airport of the employee attrition and also give them a comfort level that they wanted to stay in the jobs that they love every day,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

She added that several employees nearing retirement appreciated the option to finish out two years in their roles as a civil service employee.

Paul Payne, head of the working group, said he hopes the new plan will be enough to show city workers that they have a future at the airport even if the city pursues privatization.

“Employees say, ‘Hey, well look, what’s the future for me? Maybe I’ll go look somewhere else.’ And that’s the challenge throughout city government right now, and you don’t want to contribute to that, so hopefully this plan will alleviate some of that,” he said.

Payne said there is not yet a plan to protect non-city employees at the airport, which make up the bulk of the nearly 7,000 jobs at Lambert. He said it will be “a consideration” if privatization moves forward.

Unions wonder ‘What about us?’

The working group’s plan lays out that existing bargaining agreements would be upheld by a private operator, language that’s also included in the city’s agreement with FLY 314.

But Kevin McNatt, president of Unite Here Local 74, said he doesn’t put much faith in that assurance once contracts are up. 

He said he’s disappointed the new plan won’t help most employees at Lambert and that the city hasn’t worked with unions.

“All we’re asking for is our folks to be taken care of. We’re not asking for anything we don’t have now,” he said. 

For months, McNatt said he’s been working out contract language that could protect the roughly 400 food-and-beverage workers he represents at the airport. He said he has provided it to city officials several times but has never heard back.

The union is currently renegotiating a contract with HMSHost, set to expire next month.

Representatives at SEIU Local 1 are also concerned the new plan won’t protect the more than 100 housekeepers they advocate for at the airport.

Spokesman Nick Desideri described the plan as “inadequate” for workers at Lambert.

“This plan does not take into account the hundreds of contracted workers who work hard every single day, keeping the airport running,” he said. “And that’s deeply concerning.”

Under a loose timeline detailed in the plan, a private operator could enter a lease to begin operating Lambert by late next year.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

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Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.