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A new bill would raise wages and require health benefits for workers at Philadelphia International Airport

The bill already has support from 13 of Council’s 17 members.

Philadelphia City Council member Kenyatta Johnson spoke to frontline airport workers about legislation for health benefits access at Philadelphia International Airport on Wednesday.
Philadelphia City Council member Kenyatta Johnson spoke to frontline airport workers about legislation for health benefits access at Philadelphia International Airport on Wednesday.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson introduced a bill Thursday to raise wages and create health benefits for workers at Philadelphia International Airport.

The legislation establishes an hourly pay rate of $15.06, and requires an additional hourly wage supplement, of $4.54, for health insurance. It would affect several thousand airport workers who serve as wheelchair attendants, handle baggage, clean planes, and prepare food, among other jobs, but for whom health care is often unaffordable, union organizers say.

The workforce who would be covered by the PHL Prevailing Wage bill is also largely made up of Black employees whose communities have disproportionately suffered from the coronavirus.

“Over the last year we have seen families devastated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these airport workers are essential workers, putting their lives on the line going to work day to day,” Johnson said.

Health-care coverage “will give them a sense of security,” Johnson said, and should also be seen as a “civil rights issue.”

“It’s a matter of social justice when we talk about the health disparities that need to be addressed in Black and brown communities,” he said.

Johnson’s district encompasses the airport, which is run by the city’s division of aviation. The bill uses the city’s contracts and leases with businesses at the airport to set wage and benefits standards for their employees. Many service workers are employed by subcontractors of the airlines that have a lease agreement with the city.

“This is the city using its powers as a landlord to require its tenants ... to have these standards,” said Gabe Morgan, vice president of SEIU Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union for Pennsylvania and Delaware. “That doesn’t cost taxpayers any money.”

His local represents more than 2,500 service workers at PHL, who currently earn a minimum of $13.60 an hour. And 1,200 workers in airline catering and airport concessions are represented by Unite Here Local 274. All would be covered by the legislation, which also requires paid vacation and sick leave.

Alongside Johnson, the bill has 12 co-sponsors, including Council President Darrell Clark. This suggests the bill faces an easy path to become law, given that legislation needs nine votes to pass.

“I’m pretty confident that with the support of my colleagues, that this bill will become a law,” Johnson said. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 20.

Johnson noted that New Jersey and New York have approved similar laws covering airport workers during the pandemic, and said Philadelphia will want to be “competitive” in terms of how it is valuing workers.

City spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the mayor’s office is “currently reviewing the bill.”

The airport “is home to hundreds of companies that employ thousands of individuals in a variety of service positions,” said PHL spokesperson Heather Redfern. “The Division of Aviation is working with airport stakeholders to understand the financial and operational impact of the proposed ordinance.”

A spokesperson for American Airlines, Philadelphia’s dominant air carrier, said the company “is reviewing the proposed legislation, but does not have a public comment at this time.”

Airport workers unionized under the SEIU banner fairly recently, in 2017, and city legislation also helped to bump their pay. Previously, many service workers there were making minimum wage or less if their income was partially based on tips. Now the coronavirus has highlighted the precarious access to health care for workers deemed essential across the service sector.

“Imagine being in a job where you have to come in to work but you don’t have health care during a pandemic,” Morgan said.

During a worker rally at the airport on Wednesday, Venus Joyner, a wheelchair assistant, said her job brings her within inches of the passengers she helps.

“We’re taking all the risk that a lot of people do not see,” she said. “We ... are not just customer service agents. We care for the people that come in contact with us. We take care of them.”