Thousands facing layoffs as Philadelphia Airport slashes service

Planes are preparing for take off at the Philadelphia International Airport. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Planes are preparing for take off at the Philadelphia International Airport. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Thousands of union workers at the Philadelphia International Airport are expected to lose their jobs this week, as travel is restricted and people cancel flights en masse over coronavirus concerns.

The union SEIU 32BJ, which represents subcontracted workers like baggage handlers and plane cleaners, says it’s anticipating around 1,000 of its members will be laid off by Monday, along with many others who are represented by different unions or aren’t unionized at all.

“These are thousands of workers, the vast majority of whom live in the city of Philly and are in the neighborhoods that can least afford to have thousands of people suddenly lose their jobs,” SEIU 32BJ Vice President Gabe Morgan said.

Subcontracted workers are among the lowest-paid in the airport and typically don’t get health care, he added. He called it “outrageous” that airlines are now seeking federal bailouts and pledging to protect their own employees, but aren’t extending that protection to subcontractors.

“The point of a bailout should not be to just bail out a corporation,” he said. “We’re all for the airlines doing everything they can to protect all their direct employees….but it’s wrong that once again these [subcontracted] workers are being treated like a second-class worker.”

Florence Brown, a spokesperson for the airport, said in a statement that hundreds of companies operate within its terminals, and the airport “does not have access to data around personnel adjustments within each company, and cannot speculate about potential reductions.”

Representatives for several major airlines didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Morgan estimated between 50 and 80 percent of the contract service workers in the airport are being affected by this round of layoffs.

Dermot Delude-Dix, a research analyst at Unite Here — which represents food service workers in terminal restaurants and the chefs who cater flights — said the situation in his union is similar.

“It’s been chaotic,” he said. “I was just on the phone with one worker who said his entire company has been laid off.”

Dix isn’t sure exactly how many of Unite Here’s roughly 1,200 workers in the Philadelphia airport still have jobs, but said he expects nearly all of them to be laid off if they haven’t already.

The workers, he noted, have recall rights in their contracts, which means when the airport resumes normal operations, they’ll be brought back to work.

He said in the meantime, he and his coworkers at Unite Here are helping members file for unemployment and are urging the airport and individual airlines to maintain health insurance and keep paying workers while they’re laid off.

“Nobody has done that so far,” he said.

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