Hundreds of low-wage workers at Philadelphia International Airport are losing their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the labor unions that represents them.
32BJ SEIU, which represents 1,400 subcontracted workers such as wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, and cabin cleaners, estimates that 600 to 1,000 of its members will be laid off between now and Monday. That could be anywhere between 50% and 80% of its membership at the airport.
Unite Here, which represents 1,200 food service workers at the airport, said that hundreds of their members have already been laid off and that it is expecting more to come.
“The folks who would bear the brunt of this would be the lowest wage workers,” said Gabe Morgan, vice president of 32BJ SEIU. “The culture of the airline industry has been for so long to treat this particular class of workers as second class."
Some workers already got layoff notices Wednesday, Morgan said, but the union has just begun to grasp the scale of the layoffs. These workers are employed by airline subcontractors PrimeFlight Aviation and Prospect Airport Services. In addition, local government officials are scrambling to find ways to support the city’s 320,000 service workers, who make up nearly half the city’s workforce.
Prospect Air Services spokesperson Suzanne Mucklow said the company’s expected layoffs would begin Sunday, as “industry demand for Prospect’s services at PHL has been severely reduced.”
“At this time, it is the company’s hope that this layoff will only be temporary in nature, but due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, we are taking each day at a time,” she said in a statement.
PrimeFlight did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The layoffs come as the airlines’ leading trade group, Airlines for America, has requested $50 billion in federal assistance, saying the industry is burning through $10 billion a month as flight cancellations soar and planes are flying with only 20% to 30% of their seats filled.
The airlines have come under intense criticism for spending billions of dollars buying back their own shares in recent years. The trade group. however, stressed that federal relief for the companies is “about protecting and preserving the jobs of 750,000 U.S. airline employees, as well as the 10 million jobs supported by the airline industry.”
A spokesperson for American Airlines, which accounts for about 70% of the air traffic from the Philadelphia airport, declined to comment on the layoffs.
The departures are a sad coda to what had become a hopeful story for some of Philly’s poorest workers: Wheelchair attendants, skycaps, and baggage handlers — largely black and brown workers living in Southwest Philadelphia — fought for the last six years to double their pay from $6 an hour to more than $12 an hour. They went on strike three times and City Council, including then-City Councilmember Jim Kenney, intervened on their behalf.
Despite their raises, though, they were not able to win health-care benefits. The union planned to fight for those benefits in its latest round of negotiations.
The City of Philadelphia is currently negotiating an airport lease agreement with American Airlines. The union previously used the lease agreement negotiations as a way to win higher wages for workers. Morgan said it’s possible that city officials once again would use the lease agreement to pressure American to support its subcontracted workers.
American Airlines has previously sought to distance itself from its subcontracted workforce, saying that it does not have control over what its contractors do.
But such unions as 32BJ SEIU and Unite Here, which represent subcontracted workers, as well as labor experts say that corporations such as American are the ones that hold the power. “The contractors themselves have no power or ability to save the workers,” Morgan said. “It’s really entirely up to the airlines.”
On Wednesday, spokesperson Andrew Trull said American is “proactively consolidating” operations at PHL, temporarily discontinuing the use of the A-West ticketing counter and Gates A18-A26” – which are largely dedicated to international flights.
Philadelphia airport spokesperson Florence Brown said the airport had joined its peers in urging Congress to provide funding for the airline industry to deal with the impact of the crisis.
“The aviation system is highly interdependent, so any effort to provide relief must include airports, airlines, and the businesses that rely on them,” she said.
It’s unclear how many other workers at the airport could be laid off — some are represented by Unite Here, while others are not represented by any union.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.