Report: Poverty soaring for Philadelphia International Airport workers

airport philadelphia
Workers earlier this month rallied for living wages outside the Philadelphia International Airport. (Credit: Rikard Larma / Metro).

The median income for employees of Philadelphia International Airport subcontractors is just $16,000 each year, with many of their workers acting as the primary breadwinner for their households, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project.

“It’s pretty straightforward what the driver is of this dynamic,” NELP legal co-director Paul Sonn said.

“The airlines of the Philadelphia airport, like many airlines nationally, have shifted many of their basic functions to subcontracted service providers.”

Those functions include baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, skycaps and security guards.

“I knew, generally, that the wages were probably going to be low, but we were surprised to see quite how low they were,” Sonn said of the study, which surveyed 200 of the 2,000 subcontracted Philadelphia airport workers.

“The median wage is $7.85 an hour, which is just 60 cents more than the federal minimum wage.”

It’s also over $2,600 less than the income of US Airways CEO Doug Parker, whose estimated hourly pay is $2,640.

Faith-based advocacy coalition POWER raised that issue last week as a City Council committee reviewed a lease renewal between the city and US Airways.

The extension was given a preliminary green light despite requests it include language explicitly protecting subcontracted airport workers.

“What happened last Tuesday was a travesty because it reinforced a plantation mentality that we have at the Philadelphia airport – that the airport is not, in fact, just an airport, it is a plantation,” POWER director Bishop Dwayne Royster said.

“There are a few folk like Doug Parker … who are making multimillion dollars a year and they are doing it on the backs of poor people – primarily people of color and women – who work at the airport in these jobs through various subcontractors.”

And those subcontracted workers have little disposable income, causing a ripple effect.

“Consumer spending drives local economies and job growth and makes up 70 percent of the GDP,” Sonn said.

“The fact that the airport workers earn so little means that they have little income to spend at local businesses, so it surely is a factor that is hurting local and minority owned businesses.”

Such workers are also, Sonn noted, disproportionately dependent on state and federal social services programs

“This highlights how the airport subcontracted service jobs are really very similar to the jobs one sees at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s – jobs that pay very low wages, offer minimal benefits and where much of the cost of supporting the workers is effectively being borne by taxpayers in the safety net programs the workforce depends on,” he said.

Many cities have supplemented airlines’ increasing use of subcontractors by enacting minimum wage and benefits standards for those workers, and the report authors found no evidence such provisions drove away business or stifled competitiveness.

Though Philadelphia in 2005 enacted a 21st Century Minimum Wage and Benefits ordinance, members of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration contend the standards don’t apply to city subcontractors like those at the airport.

With new legislation set to be introduced Thursday by Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., that may soon change – meaning there is still be hope on the horizon for airport workers.

By the numbers

The report, “Soaring Poverty at the Philadelphia International Airport” also found that, among those Philadelphia International Airport employees surveyed:

86% of workers are black.

97% receive no paid sick days.

75% reported trouble paying their bills

More than 1/5 of workers or their families went hungry last year because they couldn’t afford to buy food.

27% is the poverty rate in the top neighborhoods where workers live, compared to a national poverty rate of 11.6%.


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