When Isaura Fernandez was seven months pregnant, she worked full days pushing disabled passengers in wheelchairs through Philadelphia International Airport. Having survived a still birth of twins, a miscarriage and two earlier high-risk pregnancies, she was scared of the physical exertion, but needed the $5.25 per hour.
When she took three months off for the delivery, she was paid nothing, as the job has no benefits or sick days. She is on public assistance for insurance.
“This job, the way this company is, they really don’t care about you or your family,” Fernandez said. But the 28-year old-mother of three doesn’t see many choices. In a city with a 10.7 percent unemployment rate, she wants to find another job, preferably one that uses her associate’s degree. But, she said, “we don’t have any options. Even if you try to work outside the airport you can’t find a job. You can apply and you still won’t get called back.”
Fernandez is one of 950 baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants and skycaps employed at the airport. Technically, she works for PrimeFlight, a national company that subcontracts with airports to provide low-wage jobs. She works full time, is a lead volunteer at her daughter’s school and doesn’t believe she is making a better life for her children, or that she possibly can on the wages she earns.
Every day, Fernandez interacts with passengers with the means to jet across the country or the world, but said she feels stuck in a dead-end job.
“It’s not fair because we are all working and we’re all trying to make a living in this world,” she said.
Now, Fernandez and her fellow low-wage workers are stuck in the middle of a general debate over quantity versus quality in Philadelphia jobs, and in a minute legal battle over who in the city can mandate higher wages.
Airport expansion makes this issue ever more pressing as Philadelphia International looks to add thousands of temporary and long-term jobs. Since 2000, the airport has invested $1 billion in improvements and designed a Capacity Enhancement Program that aims to modernize services and reduce delays. Owned by the city of Philadelphia, the airport is nonetheless self-sustaining and generates $14.1 billion in spending and 141,000 jobs each year. U.S. Airways, its largest airline, recently agreed to a two-year lease renewal with the city, which includes $734 million in investments toward airport improvements.
City Council, which must approve the lease, has yet to see the details. Advocates are pushing to make sure that the lease builds in higher wages for subcontracted workers like Fernandez, which brings us to the legal battle.
In 2005, Philadelphia City Councilmember W. Wilson Goode, Jr. introduced the 21st Century Minimum Wage Standard, which says that any company contracting or subcontracting with the city must pay workers 150 percent of the federal or state minimum wage, with some leeway for the city to grant waivers to the rule. But there is disagreement over whether City Council has the authority to dictate contracts under the mayor’s office. Brian Abernathy, then chief of staff to the managing director of the mayor’s office, said in a testimony to a city council committee last month that the mayor’s office does not believe it is bound by the provisions.
The reasoning is a complex legal fight over whether city council ordinances or the city charter hold final sway regarding contracts and subcontracts.
At the same time, it’s a fight over not only whether City Council can mandate higher wages, but whether the city should. Abernathy asserted that expanding the higher wage for more subcontractors would limit competition and reduce the number of jobs available.
“While we empathize with the employees facing these extreme conditions… we believe any expansion’s impact would have the opposite effect of its intention,” he said. “Rather than providing good paying jobs, it’s likely the extension will reduce the total number of jobs available, increase the city’s and other consumers’ costs and severely limit competition.” Abernathy said that even if the mayor were legally obligated to implement the standard, “the administration would likely issue a blanket waiver for all covered companies.”
On Wednesday, City Council held a budget hearing on aviation. Several council members asked airport CEO Mark Gale about wages for subcontractors like Fernandez. Goode asked, “do you think those issues are being addressed in what you plan to offer the council or will council have to change what you bring to us?” Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr. warned, “when the tides rise all boats should rise with it. If that is not the case, then what’s the point? We are going to keep a focus on that.”
Gale said the contracts will follow the city laws but do not include other provisions on wages.
Meanwhile, back at the airport, some 30-odd people, roughly divided between workers and activists from community organizations, rallied outside Terminal B. The protesters marched in a circle wearing personalized t-shirts with hand written grievances like “no health insurance = not making it at PHL” and carried sign-sized postcards addressed to the mayor, inviting him to spend a day in their shoes.
They chanted slogans like “poverty jobs don’t fly” and speeches opened with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. The workers came on their days off to share stories, and they earned stares, though not additional participants, from busloads of employees coming in for work.
Twenty-six percent of Pennsylvania families classify as “working-poor,” according to a report by the Working Poor Families Project. This means that while working at least 39 weeks a year, they earn less than 200 percent of the poverty line. In the U.S., a family with two children that earns minimum wage lives below the poverty line.
Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.