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As cost of living soars, SF program to help struggling airport workers pay bills

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/7/2020 By Heather Knight
José Cisneros wearing a suit and tie: Treasurer Jose Cisneros of the City and County of San Francisco  at the SF Chronicle last year. © Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2019

Treasurer Jose Cisneros of the City and County of San Francisco at the SF Chronicle last year.

In one of the most expensive cities in the world, plenty of fully employed people are one emergency away from a financial catastrophe. And in a region with almost no unemployment, bosses are constantly scrambling to keep their businesses fully staffed.

This spring, Treasurer Jose Cisneros will launch a, well, pilot program at the airport to test whether providing easily accessible emergency funds to low-paid workers can help both them and their employers.

Cisneros’ office has received a $150,000 grant from the Workers’ Lab, an Oakland incubator for projects that empower union workers. It is funded by Service Employees International Union and other private donations.

Low-paid airport workers, including custodians and caterers, will be able to draw down $500 apiece annually if an emergency strikes, like their car breaking down or a big medical bill popping up. These employees work for private companies — not the city itself — but are crucial to keeping the city’s airport running smoothly.

A Federal Reserve study last year found 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to easily come up with $400 for an emergency. They don’t have the funds available in cash, savings or on a credit card they could pay off quickly without accruing a lot of interest.

“Without that financial cushion, should some unexpected financial thing happen, it can really wreak havoc on the family,” Cisneros said on the latest episode of The Chronicle’s San Francisco City Insider podcast. “What if we put together a fund ... and said, you know what, this year if you need $400 to $500 to cover an expense, just let us know. It’s here. Just ask for it. We’ll get it to you.”

The money could help with emergencies, but surely won’t be enough to satisfy workers and unions who’ve been complaining that private catering companies at SFO pay poverty wages. Three city supervisors and dozens of airport workers were arrested in November at a protest over the issue. Many of the airport workers make just over the city’s mandatory minimum wage of $15.59 an hour, but argue it’s not enough — especially with rising health care premiums.

Under Cisneros’ program, the workers wouldn’t have to pay the emergency money back. The idea is it could keep them coming to work — by being able to fix their cars or quickly deal with another crisis — and save the airport the time and money of finding replacement workers.

If the pilot goes well, Cisneros’ office will extend the idea to other interested private employers next year. Employers would likely have to front the money, which would be managed and disbursed by the treasurer’s office.

Cisneros’ main job is collecting and managing the 181 various taxes and fees collected by the city of San Francisco. But since his appointment to the treasurer’s post 15 years ago, Cisneros has also focused on creating programs to boost low-income families including Bank on San Francisco, which he said has given 75,000 residents access to checking accounts, and Kindergarten to College, which opens college savings accounts for every kindergartner in public school in the city.

To hear the full conversation with Cisneros, who won another four-year term in November, visit

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: Twitter: @hknightsf Instagram: @heatherknightsf


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