Airport workers push for immediate pay hike

Posted: June 11, 2014

The low-paid airport workers who cheered when Mayor Nutter signed an executive order in May that extended minimum wage benefits to subcontractors such as them are not cheering anymore.

Three weeks have passed since the mayor's order, applying the $10.88 minimum wage requirement to subcontractors, went into effect. But the paychecks of many of those airport workers still reflect $7.50 hourly wages.

The order applies to any bids or proposals issued after May 20, and starting Jan. 1, all proposals and contracts will include a $12-an-hour minimum wage requirement.

City officials say they can't force current contractors and subcontractors to pay the minimum wage standard until they sign new contracts.

But the service employees union SEIU 32BJ, representing the airport workers, is trying to put pressure on City Hall and the airlines to get the subcontractors who employ the cabin cleaners and wheelchair attendants to comply with the order earlier.

On Tuesday, Council's labor committee will discuss a bill that would amend the city code to require all city subcontractors, not just contractors as currently mandated, to pay their workers 150 percent of the federal minimum wage, or $10.88 an hour.

Last month, voters approved a ballot question giving Council the authority to make the minimum wage requirement for all subcontractors a permanent law. The mayor's executive order could be undone by the next mayor - Council legislation is more permanent.

Several dozen airport workers, such as Amos Gbalah, who is making $7.50 an hour as a cabin cleaner, are planning to attend the Council hearing Tuesday. They also expect to go to the mayor's office to ask Nutter to enforce his executive order.

"I am really desperate," Gbalah said Monday. "When will new income come in? It's a major concern now."

Gbalah and his wife, a house cleaner, are trying to make ends meet for their family of six.

The subcontracts employing Gbalah and others are all up for renewal at different times, SEIU 32BJ spokeswoman Julie Blust said.

American Airlines and US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said in a statement that the airlines are still assessing the impact of Nutter's order.

The minimum wage executive order and pending bill would apply to all contracts receiving city money, such as construction or window washing, and not just airport workers. But it's not yet clear how many workers will benefit or how many businesses will have to pay more.

"We don't know on each contract how many subcontracts they have," said Mary Stitt, chief of staff for the Managing Director's Office, which is overseeing the minimum wage initiative. Her office's best guess is that the order will affect "thousands of vendors."

The administration also has no specific enforcement plan.

"There is discussion of whether or not we should put more resources into more hands on oversight," Stitt said Monday.

Once businesses sign contracts with the new minimum wage language, they are expected to comply, Stitt said.

"We do have to rely on contractors and . . . on them following the letter of the law," Stitt said. If the administration doesn't think subcontractors are complying, officials could audit them, she added.

Workers "can bring that to the city's attention," and cases may be referred to the Office of Inspector General, she said.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., the primary sponsor of the minimum wage extension, said he expected the bill to be voted favorably out of committee Tuesday and come up for a Council vote June 19.

The bill, which was cosponsored by the other 16 Council members, is expected to pass and be signed by Nutter.

But that ordinance would only apply to contracts signed after the effective date unless businesses agreed otherwise.

"Contracts and leases could be amended," to increase the wages before they are renewed, Goode said. "But it would need agreement from both sides."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-815-1953 @InqCVargas

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