City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to raise wages and establish new health benefits for several thousand service workers at Philadelphia International Airport, over a year into a pandemic that left many Black and brown workers in essential industries vulnerable to illness and the financial strain of getting sick.
The PHL Prevailing Wage bill sets a minimum hourly wage of $15.06 — up from the $13.60 an hour some unionized employees make currently — and requires an additional $4.54 hourly supplement toward benefits like health insurance, as well as paid sick leave.
The bump in pay and benefits covers a largely Black and brown workforce employed by private businesses as wheelchair attendants, security guards, airplane cabin cleaners, catering staff, and retail and restaurant workers, among other jobs. Many of those employees work for subcontractors of carriers such as American Airlines — Philadelphia’s dominant airline — which had pushed back on the cost increases under the bill, and said it could jeopardize jobs and the number of flights while airlines recover from pandemic business losses.
But that argument didn’t carry much weight with union leaders and elected officials who pointed to the billions in federal relief that has flowed to airlines, while low-income airport employees often cannot afford health care coverage on salaries of less than $30,000 a year.
“We will continue to work in partnership with American Airlines” as well as small businesses at the airport, said Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, the bill’s primary sponsor. “But at the end of the day,” he added, “this particular vote was picking people over profits. At the end of the day, you have workers who have worked day in and day out, on the frontline, through the pandemic.”
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said it was prepared to enforce the wage requirements during a May hearing on the bill, and a spokesperson reiterated that position last week. Kenney’s office didn’t immediately comment on the bill after the vote.
Airlines and other businesses at PHL operate under contractual agreements with the city-owned airport, giving the city the ability to set wage requirements. New York and New Jersey adopted similar laws during the pandemic.
Two of the main advocates for the legislation are Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2,500 airport workers, by a pre-pandemic count, and Unite Here Local 274, which represents more than 1,200 airport workers, also a pre-pandemic figure.
“This win will provide a family sustaining wage for all PHL workers, as well as healthcare for the 85% of our members working at PHL that can’t currently afford a healthcare plan,” said Gabe Morgan, vice president and state director of 32BJ SEIU.
American Airlines spokesperson Andrew Trull said the company “is working to determine the full impact of the approved legislation and any potential adjustments to our future operation at PHL.”
Some small business owners who operate airport concessions were also frustrated with rising costs under the bill, at a time when airport traffic has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Johnson amended the bill last week in an effort to address some of those concerns, by delaying the minimum wage increase until January 2022, and the health supplement until July 2023, at retail and restaurant locations.
Both the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, a business trade group, and Unite Here, which represents food service workers, said they supported the amendment. PRLA said it still wants to address costs for airport concessionaires during the pandemic recovery, and Johnson said he will continue exploring possible relief measures.
“I’m 110% committed to supporting those small businesses and making sure they continue to thrive,” Johnson said in an interview. An airport spokesperson said PHL “will undergo a business impact study to understand the effect of potential wage legislation on concessionaires.”
Workers at the airport said the requirements in the bill would make a big difference in their lives.
“Everybody should have health insurance,” said Brian Eichler, who’s worked as a security guard since early 2017. “Everybody gets sick. Everybody has health issues one way or another.”
Eichler isn’t insured. He has diabetes and said he pays for his medication out of pocket on his $13.60-an-hour pay, and picks up overtime shifts whenever he can to help with his bills.
At the start of pandemic shutdown in March 2020, Eichler said he advocated to his manager to keep him on the job instead of laying him off. Just over a year later, this past April, he caught the coronavirus, and had to rely on his savings when he was out sick.
“It was a scary time, especially with me being a diabetic,” Eichler said.
Walter Thomas, who also works as a security guard, said he hasn’t had health insurance in the nine years he’s worked at PHL. He pays for medication to treat his diabetes and hypertension.
At one point during the pandemic, he was stationed in an airport terminal where people who were homeless stayed temporarily. He now works in a building where his job means standing inches from others, monitoring employees coming in and out of the gate. Thomas said he was scared of catching the coronavirus not only for his own health, but also because his daughter has asthma. “For me it was very stressful,” he said.
“The prevailing wage and the health care would help us completely,” Thomas said. “I think it would lift a lot of the weight off of our shoulders.”