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City Council advances wage and health benefits bill for workers at Philadelphia International Airport

The airport says it will drive up concession costs. Advocates for the bill point to the COVID-19 relief given to those concessionaires.

Nathaniel Sokan (center) holds a Philly Unite Here union sign before a rally earlier this month in favor of boosting wages and health benefits for workers at Philadelphia International Airport.
Nathaniel Sokan (center) holds a Philly Unite Here union sign before a rally earlier this month in favor of boosting wages and health benefits for workers at Philadelphia International Airport.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The administration of Mayor Jim Kenney confirmed its support Thursday for a bill to raise wages and require health benefits for many airport workers, during a City Council hearing in the labor and civil service committee.

The PHL Prevailing Wage bill would bump pay to about $15 an hour, add a $4.54 hourly wage supplement toward medical insurance costs, and guarantee paid sick leave for several thousand workers at businesses that operate at Philadelphia International Airport, including companies contracted by airlines. The airport is run by the city’s division of aviation.

The committee voted Thursday to advance the legislation, which already had support from 13 of council’s 17 members.

In testimony Thursday, the airport’s chief executive, Chellie Cameron, said the measure would drive up the costs for airport concessions by $8 million. Before the pandemic, more than 150 concessions operated at the airport, employing many of the workers who would benefit from the legislation.

A union official noted that the airport waived fees from hard-hit concessionaires after COVID-19 struck. Responding to questions from Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, an airport executive said that the forgiven fees amounted to $27 million.

Johnson, the bill’s sponsor, said it would support essential workers whose households have faced added risk during the pandemic.

“The administration is prepared to enforce this,” Rich Lazer, deputy mayor for labor, testified.

The measure would increase hourly wages by about $1.25. Advocates say the real key is the money set aside to defray health-care costs.

» READ MORE: American Airlines executives optimistic about a recovery at Philadelphia International Airport

Workers often cannot afford health coverage offered by their employers, said Rosslyn Wuchinich, president of Unite Here Local 274, which represents food service workers at the airport.

An airport worker earning less than $30,000 a year could pay as much as $100 a week — or about $5,000 a year — for health benefits, she said. But because of high deductibles, and co-insurance that covers only a portion of costs, employee could still be left “with medical bills of thousands and thousands of dollars,” she said.

As a result, Wuchinich said, the majority of workers do not opt for employer-sponsored medical coverage. They either have no insurance at all, or they get insurance that is taxpayer-subsidized or through a family member, she said.

“Many workers with or without health coverage at PHL don’t go to the doctor or the hospital when they should,” Wuchinich said. “And it means that the fear of getting COVID, for many airport workers, was heightened, because a trip to the hospital could be financially devastating even if they survived the virus.”

Workers of color are “over-represented” in lower-paid positions in food service jobs, she said, and so it is also less likely they would be able to afford a company health plan.

Charles Patton, a cook, has worked at the airport for about 13 years. He was one of four workers who testified Thursday.

“We faced and continue to face all kind of safety issues … due to the pandemic,” he said. “Some of my co-workers have gotten COVID-19, and our health matters.”

Patton said he has health coverage through his employer, but said the coverage could still be better, and that his colleagues need more affordable options.

“I have co-workers who have to decide to either pay for medical care, or their rent,” he said. “People should not have to choose between taking care of their bills, feeding their families, and receiving medical care. Health care is usually left out because of these other needs.”

Councilmember and committee chair Cherelle Parker said workers should not have to choose between going to the doctor and also covering rent and groceries.

The legislation comes as PHL is trying to shore up its recovery from the pandemic. “The previous fiscal year, current fiscal year, and next fiscal year, our revenue losses are estimated to be about $500 million,” said Cameron, the airport CEO. The airport received about $260 million in federal relief funding.

“It is incredibly important that all workers at the airport are paid a fair wage and have access to health care,” she said, while noting the airport’s concern about the financial impact of the legislation on PHL’s concession program.

That $8 million in new expense at concessions would need to come from one, or from a combination, of three sources, she said: the concession operators’ profit margins, the airport’s bottom line, and the cost of what travelers pay when they make food and retail purchases.

“There are three options, but ... there are issues with all of them,” she said.

Many concession operators, Cameron said, are “local, small, minority and women-owned businesses.” Wuchinich pointed out that most workers at the airport are employed by large corporations.

Johnson said he’s been talking about the bill with the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association and American Airlines, Philadelphia’s dominant airline.

A spokesperson of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said the trade group has questions about the bill, and would like to “ensure Councilman Johnson can achieve the intent of his bill but not at the cost of our small restaurants closing.”

American Airlines spokesperson Andrew Trull said the company had no comment.

New Jersey and New York have already enacted similar legislation for airport workers in their states, and at higher wage rates than what is being proposed in Philadelphia, said Gabe Morgan, vice president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union for Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The union represents more than 2,500 workers at PHL who serve as wheelchair attendants, clean planes, and perform other jobs.

Airlines received billions in federal funds to recover from the pandemic, Morgan said, and “we think it is the right thing to do for the Philadelphia local economy by helping workers have more purchasing power and health care.”