In the fall of 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney made it official: Security officers guarding Philadelphia’s major educational and medical institutions would get the prevailing wage.
The law, introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym in 2016, would be a significant gain for those workers, most of whom were making $7.25 — minimum wage — when they unionized in 2011.
But almost three years later — and more than three weeks since the July 1 deadline Kenney set — roughly 1,400 security guards still haven’t gotten the raise they were promised, according to SEIU 32BJ, the union that represents them. The union filed a complaint Monday with the city. Right now, many are paid the salary floor of $12 an hour. The union says they should be making $15 an hour.
Under the law, nonprofits including the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University are required to pay security officers the prevailing wage because the institutions get a longstanding discount on their city water bill — what is called the “charitable organization discount.” Penn, Drexel University, and Temple get annual water bill discounts of more than $100,000. Last year, the 25% discount earned Penn and its hospitals more than $2.2 million in water bill reductions, according to city records.
“Taxpayers’ dollars should not subsidize poverty wages,” Kenney said in February. His administration has passed a number of labor protection laws in the last three years, but has struggled to enforce them.
The city didn’t notify the nonprofits that the water discount triggered the prevailing wage law until February 2019, which is why Kenney set a July deadline for compliance, mayoral spokesperson Lauren Cox said.
About 400 security guards work at Penn’s buildings, which include its hospitals, and another 400 work at Temple and its hospitals. The union in its complaint said these institutions also are not paying security officers prevailing wage: Drexel University, Peirce College, St. Joseph’s University, and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM).
Prevailing wage, set by the federal government, is $13.62 an hour for an unarmed security guard, plus $4.48 an hour in fringe benefits. The union calculated $15 by subtracting health-care benefits. Cox said any combination of wages and benefits can be paid as long as it meets the total package.
The city is working with these nonprofits to make sure they are complying with the law, Cox said. Some have indicated that they plan to discontinue the discount so they do not have to comply. She added that Penn workers are part of a collective bargaining agreement that predates the law, and that Penn indicated it would raise wages when the agreement was up for renewal. The contract expires in September 2020.
By way of enforcing this law, the city can revoke financial subsidies, but the Mayor’s Office of Labor has said it sees measures like those as a last resort.
Spokespersons for Penn and Penn Medicine said the institutions are "in compliance with the city’s applicable prevailing wage obligations.”
Peirce College spokesperson Joseph Guzzardo said the college decided to end its water discount this year.
Temple University spokesperson Ray Betzner said that wage rates for contracted workers, such as security guards, are set by their employers and that Temple is working with the city to make sure it’s in compliance. PCOM spokesperson Renee Cree said the college was not involved in the process of setting wages for its security guards.
St. Joseph’s spokesperson Gail Benner said, “We continue to pay close attention to this and related workplace issues.” Drexel did not respond to a request for comment.
Most of these workers are employees of contractor Allied Universal. Allied spokesperson Vanessa Showalter said the company was following the collective bargaining agreements that are in place.
Enforcement as a campaign
Labor unions and advocates have ramped up campaigns to get Philadelphia to enforce its labor standards, especially as the city embarks on implementing Fair Workweek, a scheduling law that will apply to an estimated 130,000 service workers. This is not the first time 32BJ has used political pressure to get employers to comply with a city law. It was able to raise wages for workers in 2015 after getting American Airlines to write the wage increase into its agreement with the city.
The prevailing wage law applies to more than these security officers. But because the building service workers at subsidy-receiving universities, hospitals, and stadiums, as well as the Convention Center, Philadelphia International Airport, and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, do not have a union representing them, it’s unclear whether they’re receiving the prevailing wage.
Hadiyyah Edwards, an Allied security guard who just got transferred to Drexel from Hahnemann University Hospital, said making more money could mean she could afford her own housing.
Edwards, 28, who used to work as a certified medical assistant, recently moved in with her mom in West Oak Lane because she couldn’t afford the rising rent at her apartment. She makes $12 an hour and usually chooses to work more than 40 hours a week to make ends meet.
Working at Hahnemann meant she was on the front line of emergencies — fielding gunshot victims or pregnant women in labor. Once, she said, a woman miscarried in her arms.
“I don’t want our work to go unnoticed,” she said.
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.