Advocates urge extending Philadelphia's 'living-wage' standard to non-unionized airport workers

Skycap Brahim Alexander waits outside Terminal D at Philadelphia International.
Skycap Brahim Alexander waits outside Terminal D at Philadelphia International. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 12, 2012

A coalition of advocacy and labor groups wants the city to extend its "living wage" standard, now in effect for many companies with city contracts, to about 2,000 low-wage workers at Philadelphia International Airport.

Although many airport employees are covered by union contracts, some in passenger service jobs - skycaps, wheelchair attendants, aircraft cleaners, and baggage handlers at luggage carousels - work for subcontractors that have low-bid contracts with airlines.

The city's minimum-wage and benefit standard of $10.88 an hour and paid sick days for people working under direct contracts with City Hall does not apply to these subcontractors.

And because they work for tips, they are not guaranteed the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 - similar to servers in restaurants.

The living-wage law was originally drafted by Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. and adopted in 2005. A committee that reviews implementation of the law and makes recommendations to City Council will hear Tuesday from some airport workers, such as skycap Brahim Alexander, who makes $2.83 an hour before tips.

Traditionally, skycaps received most of their pay from tips. But since airlines imposed fees to check bags, passengers are not tipping as they used to, the workers contend.

"I'd like them to pay skycaps better wages, plus sick days. We work outside in the cold. If we get sick, we have to call out and we lose a day's pay," he said.

Although his wife also works, Alexander said getting by was difficult. "At the end of every month, we are in a hole. We wind up getting backed up in our rent."

Wade Dantinne, 37, has been a skycap since 1993. He checks bags outside the ticket counter at Southwest Airlines.

He said that it had been a good job, but that with recent cuts in skycaps' hours by his employer, Prime Flight Aviation Services, "I'm having a harder time. I'm doing a lot of praying."

The pay varies, and some weeks, "you don't make a lot of money." Then at Christmas, and during the summer, "it's a great time to have this job," he said.

Because Southwest does not charge to check bags, its passengers are sometimes more inclined to tip, skycaps say.

John Stewart, 54, works as a wheelchair agent, handling passenger requests for assistance for United and Delta Air Lines. He earns $5.25 an hour before tips.

"But mostly you don't get tips," said the Chester resident, who relies on public assistance and food stamps to survive.

Stewart works five days a week, eight hours a day. His pay is $200 to $300 every two weeks. "That's not enough money to live on," he said.

Juanita Sanchez, director of Fight for Philly, a community organizing group, said the pay scale was "roughly the same" at other airports where workers are not unionized.

"The subcontracting market is a race to the bottom to provide the cheapest service at the cheapest price because there are no industry standards. It all comes on the shoulders of workers," she said.

Advocates for the airport workers also include the interfaith group Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild.

At Los Angeles and San Francisco International Airports, baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants have joined unions.

At the Philadelphia airport, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been actively talking to subcontractor workers, "looking to organize them," said Wayne MacManiman, who runs the Mid-Atlantic District for SEIU Local 32BJ.

"I'd say the conversations probably have been ongoing for nine months to a year," he said. "Right now, we're trying to figure out the smartest way. The big part is making sure people want a union. They have to be willing to sign cards."

The SEIU and other community groups want the city's minimum-wage and benefits law to apply to all airport employees. "We are trying to draw City Council's attention that people are basically being taken advantage of by these airlines, which are making huge profits," MacManiman said.

LSG Sky Chefs Inc., the caterers who prepare meals and snacks for the airplanes, are represented at the Philadelphia airport by the union Unite Here. The other restaurant and food service workers at the airport are not represented, although they are in many other cities, said Katharine Cristiani, executive vice president of Unite Here Local 274. "We are in the process of surveying those workers, and will have more concrete data in the near future," she said. "From all the conversations we've had, the wages are quite low, particularly for a public institution like the airport."


Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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