The Philadelphia Fight for Better Wage Protections for Subcontracted City Workers

Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Law and Governance heard testimony on Wednesday supporting charter amendments to extend wage protections for subcontracted city workers. The committee voted in support of the changes and the full Council could vote on it as early as this Thursday. Should it pass that vote, it will become a ballot referendum in May at the earliest.

As of 2005, those who receive city money for development and projects are legally obligated to pay their workers at least minimum wage and a half. That's $10.88 per-hour. The problem is that those working for the city by proxy through subcontracts do not enjoy such protections.

In holding with the rest the universe, if things can go wrong, they generally do. The loophole has produced an environment in which subcontracted city workers’ rights are routinely ignored.

These types of abuses tend to concentrate at airports among other places; Philadelphia’s is no exception. The National Employment Law Project grocery-lists the labor violations at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) and provides background on poor airport labor conditions more generally. I’ve written about this here on PolicyShop in the past.

City Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. first motioned to close the loophole that allows many of these violations in Philadelphia this past June.  

Many local groups and some portion of City Council support the idea. Mayor Nutter’s administration does so in spirit, but wants to add a few cost-saving tweaks to Goode Jr.’s charter amendments. Nutter’s Chief of Staff Everett Gillison represented this interest at yesterday’s meeting.

One of his two concerns was that the changes would in their current form make it financially impossible for the city to continue supporting certain jobs. Though when Council pressed him for detail regarding how and why this is true, the Chief of Staff admitted he didn't have that information immediately available.

His other trepidation involved the amount of "paperwork [required] to catch up on" the numerous companies to which the city subcontracts labor. This work, Gillison predicted, "would be onerous."

Council did not approve suggestions to soften Goode Jr.’s charter amendments.

Where Gillison sees semi-necessary administrative headaches, PHL worker Onetha McKnight sees "hope for me and other people at the airport." Along with 2,000 other PHL employees, McKnight does not currently receive protections under the Philadelphia 21st Century Minimum Wage and Benefits Standard ordinance.

Gillison made $178,650 in 2012. McKnight has worked as a PHL wheelchair attendant for 6 years at $7 per-hour. She’s never gotten a raise; she no longer qualifies for food stamps since the city reduced support for them last year; she can’t afford the necessary insurance to get treatment for her high blood pressure and asthma.

Representatives of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ and faith-based group Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild also testified in support of Goode Jr.’s proposal.

State Senators have this week introduced a plan to raise minimum wage in Pennsylvania, which currently stands at an hourly $7.25. The plan is to increase it to $9 by the year 2015. Efforts like Goode Jr.'s are important supplements because they emphasize the extent to which statewide minimum wage regulations can and often do leave behind tipped and subcontract workers like McKnight.

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