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"Skycaps at Logan Airport sue over lost tips"

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Skycaps at Logan sue over lost tips
They blame bag fee levied by airline, firm
By Sacha Pfeiffer
The Boston (MA) Globe

Two American Airlines skycaps at Logan International Airport have filed a
class-action lawsuit against the carrier and the contract company that
employs them for allegedly withholding their tip money and failing to pay
them minimum wage.

The accusations stem from a $2-per-bag fee that American began imposing last
year on travelers who use its curbside check-in service, a charge that the
airline concedes may cause tips to plummet, since few passengers offer a tip
in addition to the bag fee.

Yet skycaps, who traditionally have received most of their compensation from
tips, don't benefit from the charge, which flows primarily to the companies
with which American contracts for skycap services.

The complaint, filed yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court, is the latest in a
string of lawsuits by service workers who have accused their employers of
depriving them of tips, which are sometimes distributed to other workers,
including managers. The lawyer who filed it said she believes it is the
first in the state to address tipped employees not employed in the food and
beverage industries.

"American Airlines is turning to some of its lowest-paid workers to help
defray the costs of its business," said Boston attorney Shannon
Liss-Riordan, who filed the complaint and has filed about 20 similar suits
in recent years against restaurants, hotels, and country clubs.

"The skycaps are hard workers; they hustle and they work hard for their tips
to provide service to passengers to make it a little easier before they try
to catch a flight," Liss-Riordan said. "And American Airlines, in trying to
save some money . . . is taking the tips out of their pockets."

A spokesman for American said airline officials had not seen the suit and
could not comment. The president of G2 Secure Staff of Irving, Texas, which
American uses to provide its Logan skycap service, was vacationing and could
not be reached for comment.

But the American spokesman, Tim Smith, said the airline began testing the
fee several years ago in a limited number of markets and now charges it
throughout its domestic system, except at a few small airports where
American shares skycaps with other airlines.

It was adopted to reduce the expense of American's skycap services, which
previously cost "in the low eight figures a year," said Smith. Most of the
money goes to companies American hires to operate its skycap services, while
the airline keeps a small percentage for administrative costs.

It is one of numerous efforts to cut costs that airlines have employed, such
as charging for in-flight meals, since fuel costs soared and passenger
volume declined after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The $2 charge is not a tip, in our estimation," Smith said. "It is a
service charge for those who choose to use the convenience of this service .
. . and customers who use this service are still free to tip above any
service fee if they want to."

American officials are aware that tipping decreased after the bag charge was
imposed, but in most cases the tips returned to customary levels three or
four weeks after the fee was implemented, he said.

That has not been the case for Don DiFiore, a lead plaintiff in the case,
who calls the charge "a direct assault on my tips."

DiFiore, who lives in Derry, N.H., has been an American skycap at Logan
since 1983. Since the fee was imposed, he said, his pay has sometimes
dropped by "a couple hundred dollars a week," prompting him to eliminate his
home telephone and cable service to trim expenses.

And because American prohibits skycaps from asking for tips, he said, many
passengers are unclear about the fee's purpose.

"A lot of people are actually very confused about this charge," DiFiore
said. "They know we make tips and a lot of times they think they're tipping
me, but they really aren't. So from my perspective I'm handing in my tip
money." He said the skycaps would like the fee ended or for it to be given
to them.

After American started collecting the fee, the hourly wage for skycaps was
increased to about $5 from $2.63, which under state law is standard base pay
for most tipped employees, who expect to substantially supplement their
hourly wage with tips.

But according to Liss-Riordan, the skycaps' increased pay is still below the
$6.75 minimum hourly wage in Massachusetts, putting American and G2 in
violation of the state's minimum-wage law, as well as its tip law, which was
expanded in 2004 to include all tipped employees, such as valets and
hairdressers, and not just food and beverage workers. The suit also accused
the companies of not adequately notifying passengers that the bag fee is not
a tip.

Leon Bailey of Roxbury, who was an American skycap at Logan from 1989 until
last March, is also a lead plaintiff in the case.

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