SkyWest Airlines was the first-ever recipient of a new state tax incentive last August, worth $1.3 million.
The St. George, Utah, company won the incentive by promising to hire 50 people for a new maintenance hangar at the Boise Airport and to pay those new employees an average wage of $52,000 a year. The SkyWest maintenance workforce could reach 100 employees over the next 12 years, the airport said when it announced the $20 million hangar now under construction.
Six months after SkyWest won its tax incentive, United Airlines outsourced local operations and customer-service jobs to SkyWest, at significantly lower wages.
United Airlines, which was founded in Boise in the 1930s, will no longer have any local operations employees.
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“As an airline employee, I am familiar with SkyWest Airlines and I applaud this addition to our city and the state of Idaho,” said an email in April from an employee to Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer said.
But the employee questioned whether the SkyWest tax incentive for maintenance jobs had created “an unintended and negative impact on our community” by helping SkyWest to win a contract from United, in which SkyWest would pay lower wages for a different set of jobs.
United Airlines announced in January that it was considering outsourcing its operations at the Boise Airport and other airports around the country. The union that covers local United employees made a proposal to keep Boise’s operations under United, employees said, but the union was “unable to meet the competing vendor’s price,” the employee’s email said.
SkyWest won the contract, and about 50 people who work for United at the airport were given the option of transferring to other cities or taking jobs that pay $9 an hour with few or no benefits, according to employees.
Nobody in the Commerce Department knew at the time SkyWest won the tax incentive that United would be outsourcing jobs or that SkyWest would win the outsourcing contract, according to Megan Ronk, the department’s chief operations officer.
When the employee who emailed Sayer asked for assurance that none of the tax incentive money would subsidize the lower-wage administrative, payroll, accounts payable and other jobs SkyWest is performing for United, Ronk told him the projects are unrelated. “If SkyWest were to apply for another (tax incentive) award for airport operations, we would consider the merits of that application separately,” she wrote.
The Statesman obtained the exchange of emails in response to a public records request. The newspaper also spoke with some employees who asked not to be named.
When the Statesman asked if the United contract would raise any concerns about SkyWest’s worthiness for tax incentives, Ronk said, “We just view them as distinct projects.”
The department’s role is to “make sure they live up to their commitments as it relates to that part of the project,” she said.
Another United employee sent a message to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter in March to voice similar concerns. He wrote that he was told he’d be paid $9 an hour for a job that paid him more than $20 an hour. “Is this the kind of company that we are trying to attract to Idaho?” wrote the employee.
Bieter responded, clarifying that the city of Boise isn’t the entity that offered the tax incentive to SkyWest.
“United selected SkyWest ... based on their operational assessment that was not related to the SkyWest maintenance facility,” Bieter wrote. “I can only imagine that this is a very difficult and stressful time for you and your family. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple solution.”
SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow told the Statesman that the company had “no visibility” into the future of United’s Boise ground-handling operations while it was applying last year for the tax incentive from the state. SkyWest delivered its proposal to United to handle United operations at the Boise Airport late last year, she said. The jobs under SkyWest will have “definitely competitive wages with those we compete with,” she said.
SkyWest has in the past month advertised two jobs for the airport: a ramp agent at $9 an hour and a parts clerk with wages “discussed at interview.”