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Philly City Council presses ahead with benefits bill for airport workers after American Airlines seeks delay

The bill covering service workers is set for a final vote June 24.

Frontline airport workers and their supporters held a rally on calling for better wages and health benefits at Philadelphia International Airport on May 5, 2021.
Frontline airport workers and their supporters held a rally on calling for better wages and health benefits at Philadelphia International Airport on May 5, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said he’s moving forward with a bill to provide new health benefits for several thousand service workers at the airport, despite pushback on the costs from American Airlines, the city’s dominant air carrier.

The overwhelmingly Black and brown workforce have been essential to airport operations during the pandemic, had difficulty distancing themselves from the traveling public, and often lack health insurance, Johnson said during a Thursday Council session. They “shouldn’t have to worry that they could be bankrupt at any time” for lack of health care, he said.

Johnson amended the bill to address some concerns from small business owners and said he’ll bring the measure up for a final vote June 24.

The PHL Prevailing Wage bill, introduced last month, would raise wages to about $15 an hour, and add a $4.54 hourly supplement toward health benefits for certain airport workers — from wheelchair attendants and airplane cabin cleaners, to catering staff who prepare meals for flights and employees of airport shops and restaurants. The city owns the airport, and airlines and other private businesses there operate under lease agreements with the city.

During the pandemic, New York and New Jersey adopted similar laws boosting benefits for frontline airport workers. The Philadelphia legislation already has support from a majority of Council members, who signed on as co-sponsors, and the mayor’s office.

Unions say their members often cannot afford an employer’s health plan, leaving workers uninsured or reliant on government Medicaid benefits, and particularly vulnerable during the spread of COVID-19. At a City Council hearing in May, workers testified about the anxieties of having to choose between having health insurance and paying other bills.

Many of the workers covered by the legislation are employed by airline subcontractors and are unionized through Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ. The union represented more than 2,500 airport workers pre-pandemic, and about 2,000 are back to work at PHL. The employees make a minimum of $13.60 an hour.

American said the bill amounted to a 44% wage increase “all at once,” and that the costs “will have a negative impact on service levels, especially international service levels, in Philadelphia,” according to a June 16 letter from American’s executive vice president for corporate affairs to Johnson.

The airline, according to the letter, said it had been negotiating with SEIU and made proposals that would give workers a raise this year and “provide a path to meaningful health-care benefits ... as the airline industry recovers from the pandemic.”

That is not soon enough for the union’s workers, said Local 32BJ vice president Gabe Morgan, given the bailout funds that airlines received and how “our members have worked through a pandemic without health care.”

“The idea that they would somehow be resisting wheelchair attendants getting health care … just seems to us outrageous,” Morgan said.

Johnson, for his part, said, “in this particular case, American Airlines is being unreasonable in their demands.”

“I think American Airlines could be great corporate partners if they would really look at the issues concerning health care and prevailing wage for the poor Black and brown workers who work to move the airport forward every day,” Johnson said in an interview.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney said the administration is prepared to enforce the legislation, as deputy mayor for labor Rich Lazer promised to do in Council last month.

“It is still our position,” said deputy communications director Kevin Lessard, adding: “We remain hopeful that American Airlines will reach an amicable resolution to any outstanding issues with organized labor and the Councilmember.”

The airline has been approved for about $13 billion in federal Payroll Support Program funds since last year.

Ten members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation also sent a chiding letter to American last week, saying they were “distressed to learn that American Airlines is pushing for a delay” on the bill, and noting the billions in federal relief aid for airlines.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.), vice chair of the House subcommittee on aviation, was one of the signatories. “We just got done bailing out this industry,” Lamb said in an interview. “When you do that, I think it gives us a say in how their workers should be treated.”

American, in a response to the delegation’s letter, said it “cares deeply about working families, especially low-wage workers.” The airline expects average daily departures from Philadelphia to be down 30% this summer, compared to 2019 levels, and anticipates “significant” financial loss overall in the second quarter.

Some small business owners also objected to the speed at which the legislation was moving through Council, and its costs for their shops and restaurants when airport traffic has yet to recover from pandemic declines. Those entrepreneurs — who operate under an airport program for disadvantaged business enterprises, geared toward women and people of color — expressed their concerns to Johnson’s office and the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Johnson said he’s “very sensitive to the small businesses” at PHL. He introduced amendments to the bill Thursday that will delay a wage increase until January 2022, and the health benefits portion until July 2023, for restaurant and retail workers. Johnson also said he’ll explore other possible “relief measures” for concession businesses.

A spokesperson for the restaurant association, director of government affairs Zak Pyzik, said the changes “allow time for commerce at the airport to return and so that steps could be taken to increase cash flow for our operators.”

Pyzik said addressing other costs of doing business at the airport, such as rent and limits on how items can be priced,before the bill takes effect is the only way our businesses in the airport can continue to operate and employ Philadelphians.”