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OSHA launches inspection of PHL work conditions

A series of complaints filed last week set off an OSHA investigation.

UPDATED with response from PrimeFlight

The federal Occupational Health & Safety Administration has launched an inspection into working conditions at Philadelphia International Airport in response to a series of complaints filed last week on behalf of subcontracted baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants.

The inspection, which can take up to six months, is a standard response to work-condition complaints, OSHA spokeswoman Leni Fortson said.

The complaints allege that some PHL workers employed by the subcontractor PrimeFlight Aviation Services, which does business in Philly with U.S. Airways, United and Southwest, do not receive training on how to help handicapped passengers, are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids and are forced to use faulty equipment.

Airport workers and labor activists took their case to City Hall on Monday.

"I want proper training, proper equipment and I want to be treated like a professional," Nikisha Watson, a PrimeFlight wheelchair attendant and one of nine complainants, said at a press conference in a City Council room.

SEIU is representing the PrimeFlight employers in the complaint, although they are not part of Local 32BJ's collective-bargaining agreement at the airport.

The complaint is part of a larger effort to change work rules for the airport's nonunion workers. They've been asking the city to mandate that subcontractors pay them a living wage, $10.88 per hour plus benefits, as it does for those employed by companies that contract with the city directly.

Some workers, because they are expected to receive tips for handling baggage or assisting handicapped passengers, make less than the federal minimum wage. They say travelers don't tip like they used to and that they're barely getting by on wages alone.

"I make $5.25 an hour plus tips. There are days I don't make any tips at all," said Izzy Fernandez, another wheelchair attendant and complainant.

The airport did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

PrimeFlight sent this statement:

"We reject the comments that have been made about PrimeFlight Aviation Services during this apparent union organizing effort. PrimeFlight serves customers in over 40 cities in the US. It has a long and outstanding performance and safety record and meets all government and airline legal requirements. Our employees receive training according to those specifications and have been recognized by airlines and passengers for service excellence. We will work with the appropriate agencies to demonstrate our full, ongoing compliance with those regulations."