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Religious leaders march for fired baggage handler Sarina Santos

Local religious leaders and others marched Wednesday in support of a former baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport who contends she lost her job for speaking out about low wages.

Local religious leaders and others marched Wednesday in support of a former baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport who contends she lost her job for speaking out about low wages.

Sarina Santos, 30, of Frankford was supported by about 50 members of POWER - Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild. Participants gathered after the noon mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and marched to Dilworth Park for a vigil, where prayers and speeches on a fair living wage were delivered.

Santos, who appeared with her four children ages 6, 9, 10 and 14, spoke tearfully about how she was terminated on May 5 by airport subcontractor PrimeFlight for supposedly having too many absences - though she says she was allowed no sick days. The true reason she was fired, she said, is for speaking out with POWER on multiple occasions - including a recent panel in early May, where she discussed with Catholic leaders her economic hardships from working for $7.25 per hour.

"We are mothers and fathers," Santos said of herself and other low-wage workers. "We just want to live a decent life. I don't know how I get through it, but my faith has a lot to do with it."

The prayer vigil, organized largely by POWER lay leader Mary Laver of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Germantown, saw appearances from Councilwomen Blondell Reynolds Brown and Maria Quinones Sanchez.

Religious leaders of various congregations included Father Sy Peterka of St. Vincent de Paul, Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Tikkun Olam Chavurah, Imam Ali Hazziq Hassan of Masjidullah, Father Bruce Lewandowski, of the Archdiocesan Office for Hispanic Catholics,and the Rev. Gregory Holston of New Vision United Methodist Church, the co-chair of POWER's economic dignity task force.

Those gathered expressed frustration that the living wage referendum passed by Philadelphia voters in May 2014, which calls for minimum wage workers to make $12 an hour, has still not been implemented by subcontractors like PrimeFlight.

"Before the pope comes, let the change come," said Holston before the crowd. "Enough is enough!"

Pope Francis is expected in Philadelphia Sept. 26 and 27 for the World Meeting of Families and to say mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Holston says it would be a moral travesty for the pope to fly into the Philadelphia airport if its employees continue to suffer what he calls a lack of "economic dignity."

Santos said it is her Catholic faith that inspired her to speak about her need for higher wages at the April panel, where she appeared before Catholic leaders including Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, an adviser to Pope Francis. The event was hosted by POWER and People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), a national faith-based community organizing network.

Afterward, she joined a group of activists who protested at the airport. She lost her job less than a week later.

The event coincided with PICO's Year of Encounter with Pope Francis, which calls for communities to reach out to people experiencing "exclusion," as in lack of social or economic equality.

"I know what I'm doing is right," Santos said before the Wednesday march. "I have one door closed, but many more will open. I just want a decent paying job where I can support my family, not living paycheck to paycheck. I don't want to go through that any more."

While PrimeFlight told Santos that she was terminated for having too many absences, Santos said she believes "they needed an excuse to let me go because I was the loudest one." Other employees had more absences than she did, she says.

PrimeFlight did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When she first started to campaign with POWER and the local of Service Employees International Union for economic dignity at the airport, Santos says she "was scared, but afterwards I was like, 'I have faith in God, and this is what God is telling me what to do.'" She's worked alongside POWER members like Holston, who has been a leader of POWER's campaign for airport workers to make $12 per hour.

Holston and other members successfully lobbied Mayor Nutter and the City Council to place the City of Philadelphia Sub-Contractor Minimum Wage and Benefits Ordinance on the May 2014 election ballot. Voters passed the referendum; Nutter's executive order on the issue also specified that minimum wage be raised to $12 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2015 and that the requirement apply to subcontractors

"Philadelphia's a tough city," Holston said. "There are very few things you can get the voters, the policymakers, the legislators, to agree on... not only to reject the will of the people but to persecute workers who stand up . . . is simply morally reprehensible."

Laver said she believes subcontractors like PrimeFlight are "finding ways around" paying employees a higher wage.

"We want to really put [PrimeFlight and other employers] on notice that this a moral issue that we are calling out and demanding in the name of justice that they live up to their obligations as members of our community," Laver said. Campaigning for systematic change is a part of living as a Catholic, she says.

Santos' husband Samuel Santos, 36, now supports their family of six by himself.

In a statement, Quinones Sánchez said Santos "should not be penalized with poverty wages and a hostile job environment."

"POWER and its partner organizations have done a great job in highlighting our challenges," the statement read. "I am proud to stand with them."