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Airport workers won predictable schedules, higher wages. Can they win affordable health care, too?

A new labor fight will test whether airport jobs can become the kind of family-sustaining jobs that Mayor Kenney has touted.

Philadelphia Airport food service workers rallied Monday afternoon outside Terminal B to raise awareness for their fight to get more affordable health care.
Philadelphia Airport food service workers rallied Monday afternoon outside Terminal B to raise awareness for their fight to get more affordable health care.Read moreCourtesy UNITE HERE (custom credit)

Kojuah Siaga Moore went to the hospital with chest pains in the spring. Later this year, his wife, pregnant with their fourth child, also went to the hospital for lab tests for her pregnancy. The cost of both visits, which came in under their $2,000 deductible, landed them in medical debt.

Moore, 39, a recent immigrant from Liberia who works as a dishwasher at Philadelphia International Airport, didn’t understand. What was the point of paying $70 a week to cover him and his wife (his children are covered by government-backed CHIP) if it meant they’d still end up on a payment plan to the hospital? He canceled their health insurance, which he got through his employer, OTG, and is searching for a better option on the marketplace.

Moore’s predicament isn’t unique — many low-wage workers choose not to get insurance through their employer because it’s too expensive and comes with too many out-of-pocket costs, and workers are paying more for employer health-care plans. But what is unique is that he and his coworkers, already having won significant gains in the last few years, are picking yet another battle: Its union, UNITE HERE, is asking for more affordable health care, and the outcome will test whether airport jobs can become the kind of family-sustaining jobs that Mayor Kenney has touted.

>> READ MORE: It took 6 years for PHL airport workers to double their pay to $12 an hour. Here’s how they did it

Workers lobbied city government for higher wages in 2014; wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers, unionized with 32BJ SEIU, were able to double their pay to $12 an hour. Food service workers, like Moore, were able to get more predictable schedules and closer to full-time hours in their first union contract in 2015. Now, UNITE HERE says, the next frontier is health care. The food service workers rallied at the airport to raise awareness for their campaign Monday afternoon.

The union hopes it could set a standard for workers at the airport. 32BJ’s workers, for example, don’t get health care as part of their contract.

UNITE HERE is in contract negotiations with OTG, the company behind the recent $30 million renovation of Terminal B, and airline caterers LSG Sky Chefs, and is trying to bring down health-care costs and out-of-pocket expenses for its members. Under a proposed plan for OTG workers, the cheapest family plan offered to employees would cost roughly $11,000 a year, or about $212 a week, with the employee paying 73 percent of the premium. That’s more than double what OTG service workers were paying for a family plan in 2018. UNITE HERE represents 220 OTG workers, and half of them were getting health insurance from their employer in 2018.

>> READ MORE: Employer-sponsored health insurance is getting more expensive

On average, workers who get insurance through their employers pay 29 percent of the premium for family insurance, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation report, though it’s important to note this is an imperfect comparison, especially since many low-wage workers opt not to get insurance through their employer. The report also says that workers at companies that have a bigger share of low-wage workers (that is, at least 35 percent of workers earning $25,000 a year or less) generally pay a higher percentage of the premium than those who work at companies that employ a smaller share of low-wage workers.

“The health insurance policy that covers OTG’s crew members is the same for every eligible person in the company," an OTG spokesperson said, "and the out-of-pocket costs related to the insurance are being discussed as we begin contract negotiations.” An LSG spokesperson said that it does not comment on negotiations but that “pay and benefits are subject to good faith negotiations between our company and the union.”

The airport, championed by Kenney and city officials as an economic engine for Philadelphia, is run by the city, which means organizers and workers can turn to public officials to put pressure on employers. (Kenney was a vocal supporter of the airport workers' bid to unionize with 32BJ.) It’s one reason 11,000 airport workers across the country have unionized with SEIU at time when most unions have stagnated.

American Airlines, which controls the majority of the airport’s traffic, is also a powerful operator at PHL. It was American Airlines that required its contractors to follow the city’s minimum-wage law and bargain with 32BJ.

>> READ MORE: From 2017: PHL opens a redesigned Terminal B, with new restaurants and iPads at the passenger gates

OTG, run by Rick Blatstein, the brother of real estate developer Bart Blatstein, is a New York-based company that’s positioned itself as the future of airport customer experience. It brought in popular local chefs to design menus for the slew of more upscale eateries in Terminal B and equipped cafes with rows of iPads. In 2016, OTG filed for an IPO, but the SEC has since voided its initial filing because, after delaying the IPO due to market conditions, OTG did not update or withdraw its filings.

Moore and his wife both work at the new Terminal B eateries: Moore at Boule, a cafe, where he works about 30 hours a week at $12.50 an hour, and his wife, as as dishwasher at Top Chef Kevin Sbraga’s steakhouse, Independence Prime. And while airport worker wages have gone up, it hasn’t been enough for Moore to support his family: He got a second job assisting passengers for the airline subcontractor Prospect late last year.

Philadelphia Media Network 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