Nassau County's Industrial Development Agency voted to approve Lufthansa's request for tax aid, but in a rare move after hearing emotional testimony from union employees, board members said they would write a letter to the company urging it to engage in dialogue with the workers.
About 20 Local 100 union members attended the IDA meeting on Thursday wearing red and black T-shirts that read "Fed up!" LSG Sky Chefs food preparation workers spoke out at the meeting against the German airline, which is seeking help to move its Americas headquarters one mile west from its current East Meadow location to a new one in Uniondale.
Local 100 of the Unite Here union has been involved in heated contract negotiations with Lufthansa subsidiary LSG Sky Chefs over wages and health insurance for 1,100 food service employees working at Kennedy Airport. Many Sky Chefs employees earn New York State's minimum wage and most have no health benefits, relying instead on Medicaid and other public assistance programs, Arthur Phillips, senior analyst at Local 100, said.
"My family lives in Hempstead, right here in Nassau County," Sky Chefs employee Celestine McIntosh, 53, told IDA members. "…I've been in my job for 11 years but only make minimum wage. I don't think Lufthansa should be getting a tax break while we are stuck in poverty."
Carol Walters, 53, who also works for Sky Chefs in food preparation, told the IDA board, "I've been working there for 34 years making $15 an hour. No pension. No medical. ...
"I don't think it's fair for them to get a break, but we're not getting anything," Walters said, pausing as she fought back tears. "I work in a fridge, 12 hours a day. 34 years. $15."
IDA board member Lewis M. Warren said he was moved by the workers' accounts. "It's troubling to me as a board member to hear these wonderful folks who look like people ... who I grew up with saying they've been working for 34 years. ... It's unfair and I'm sorry," he said, as tears filled his eyes. His response to the workers drew applause from those at the meeting.
"I feel your pain. I understand it. I've lived it," IDA board member Anthony Simon told the workers. "I started out as a cleaner 30 years ago, so I understand."
As he turned to face Lufthansa's representative, Simon added, "I ask that you take everything that was said here today to heart and understand they are struggling."
However, Simon added, "that being said, I'm not going to sugarcoat anything. This will go through. But it will go through knowing that they will be held accountable and this is being heard by everybody."
IDA chairman Richard Kessel on Monday said, "This IDA is doing things in a different way. … We just don't want to be a rubber stamp for projects. We encourage dialogue and the Lufthansa situation is a good example of that."
In a telephone interview Monday, Arthur Molins, general counsel of the Americas for Lufthansa, said the labor dispute was "purely a Sky Chefs matter," adding that the company is "grateful to the IDA for supporting us in remaining in the county."
Lufthansa, the largest group of airlines in Europe, was awarded a sales-tax exemption of up to $248,000 on the purchase of construction materials, equipment and fixtures for a new $5.7 million office across the street from NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum at RXR Plaza.