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How the Working Poor Keep Philadelphia's Airport Running

Philadelphia requires city-subsidized organizations to give employees health benefits, a living wage of $10.88 an hour and paid sick leave. But the ordinance only applies only to “businesses with direct city contracts,” according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, and excludes subcontracted employees at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). Philadelphia Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. has recently proposed legislation to close this loophole. 

It's about time. 

Baggage handlers, wheelchair agents and other airport employees make most of their wages in tips. Along with restaurant staff, many of these workers struggle to figure out what their employers are legally supposed to pay them under opaque and inconsistent regulations. Even where the laws are clear, employers violate them at will.

The airline industry digressed into vicious consumer courtship after Congress deregulated it in 1978. Airlines now compete with each other to provide the lowest fair and repeatedly declare bankruptcy to slither out of union contracts.

The net result is that airport labor conditions are about on par with a lung full of water.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) surveyed 2,000 subcontracted workers at PHL and found that 1 in 3 relied on public assistance, about 13% made less than $10,000 a year, and 5% lived either in a car or at a homeless shelter. A fifth said they couldn’t afford to eat properly; most live in Philly’s horror-show zip codes; 1 in 3 reported missing work over the past year because they couldn’t afford the commute.

It’s not like airliners can’t afford to pay these people, either. PHL benefits from all sorts of public subsidies and the industry itself is strong. US Airways made $420 million and paid CEO Doug Parker $5.5 million in 2012. Yet it takes most PHL contract employees a year to earn what Parker makes in a single hour, according to NELP.

Airport workers desperately need help well beyond the basic protections of a living wage. And in general, as a Demos report has shown, the issue of federally subcontracted jobs requires a lot more attention than it currently gets.