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Why parking-lot attendants across Philadelphia have launched a campaign to unionize

Workers from 10 parking lot operators are marching in Center City to protest low wages. One parking lot operator says it's city taxes that stop it from raising pay.

About 50 parking lot attendants and 32BJ SEIU members marched down 16th Street in Center City on Thursday afternoon to raise awareness for the parking lot workers' bid to unionize.
About 50 parking lot attendants and 32BJ SEIU members marched down 16th Street in Center City on Thursday afternoon to raise awareness for the parking lot workers' bid to unionize.Read more / File Photograph

Ernest Coleman's workday begins about 6 a.m. and stretches long into the night.

A parking-lot attendant at the Ritz-Carlton who makes $7.25 an hour, plus sporadic tips and time-and-a-half for overtime, Coleman clocks 13 to 15 hours a day, six days a week, to make ends meet. He has five kids to support, all of whom live in the Dominican Republic, where his wife is from.

The parking job is better than the factory work he was doing in Bristol — a night shift and a long commute from his North Philadelphia home — but he's still tired of his schedule. He rarely sees his wife, who works an opposite shift. Like ships passing in the night, he says.

That's why Coleman has joined a group of parking-lot attendants in Philadelphia who want to unionize with 32BJ SEIU. The attendants, many of whom are immigrants and work more than one job, are employed by 10 companies that run parking operations in the city, including major operators such as Parkway, EZ Park, and Coleman's employer, LAZ Parking.

The attendants make $7 to $10 an hour and often don't get health-care benefits or can't afford the plans their employers offer, the union said. For the workers to win union representation, each company's parking attendants would need a majority to vote yes.

In their first industrywide rally on a muggy Thursday afternoon, about 50 workers and 32BJ members carrying oversized parking tickets that read "Parking Industry in Violation" marched through Center City to the beat of a drum line. The march followed smaller protests this summer decrying the firing of a group of valets at Penn Medicine — employed by the Canadian parking company Impark — who spoke up about needing a union. Two months later, they got their jobs back.

The parking industry is 32BJ's latest target, after a successful, yet protracted, campaign at Philadelphia International Airport that ended in June, where the union and workers were able to double the wages of wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers, and cabin cleaners. The focus on all employers, instead of one-off campaigns, is intentional, said 32BJ vice president Gabe Morgan, if more resource-intensive. If only one contractor's employees unionize, then a company could drop its contract and go with another, nonunion contractor that charges less. An industrywide approach sets standards, Morgan said.

Through a spokesperson, the Philadelphia Parking Association, which represents about 15 parking operators that employ 2,500 workers, declined to comment.

A spokesperson for EZ Park said its workers don't want to unionize. Brian Lipkin, executive vice president of Bala Cynwyd-based Park America, said he hasn't heard that his workers want to unionize, either.

They make $9 or $10 an hour — "Nobody's at minimum wage anymore," Lipkin said  — and while his company would like to raise wages, he blamed city tax increases.

"It's impossible to budget and plan when you don't know what's coming down the pike as far as taxes," he said. Park America has its own garages and also runs parking operations at some restaurants and hotels.

<< READ MORE: Philadelphia has 2,172,896 parking spaces. So how come you're still circling the block?

With the last round of reassessments, taxes for one Park America property shot up from $1,700 a year to $20,000 a year, Lipkin said. (The company appealed and got it lowered to $17,000.) Another Park America garage in Chinatown saw its monthly taxes go up by $3,000.

"You can't keep pace with those kinds of increases," he said. "We're not making that kind of money."

That's why his company has raised parking rates over the years, he said.

Demand hasn't kept pace, either: Center City garage occupancy rates fell from 2005 to 2015, according to a Planning Commission study, despite the Center City population growing during that time. Developers have been razing garages to make way for apartments and townhouses.

Still, a stable workforce is important to Park America, Lipkin said. Many of his employees have worked for the company for years. They know their customers, the cars, the garages.

Some newer garages have opted for complete automation, he said, but Park America doesn't see that in the near future. He said the company believes it's important, for safety reasons, to have people staffing its garages.