Will PHL follow suit of SeaTac for higher airport pay?

 Rev. Cean James encourages voters to support paying airport workers higher wages Friday at City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Rev. Cean James encourages voters to support paying airport workers higher wages Friday at City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Before this week, Philadelphia airport workers probably had little reason to envy the tiny Washington city of SeaTac.

That changed when the ballots of a closely-watched election were recounted Monday, confirming that SeaTac voters approved a measure that would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour and thereby boost the paychecks of thousands of workers at the city’s busy airport serving Seattle.

Bolstered by the win, airport employees in Philadelphia rallied at City Hall and urged voters to say “yes” to a similar question that will appear on May’s primary ballot.

It will determine whether city subcontractors, including those at the airport, should be required to pay their employees at least $10.88 per hour. Direct contractors for the city already must pay their workers that minimum wage.

Airport employee Nikisha Watson said she currently earns $8.50 per hour. Since she normally works 30 hours a week, she makes $1,020 per month, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of four. Watson said she takes care of her 4-year-old daughter, ailing mother and younger brother.

“My bills pile up every month,” she said. “I get shut-off notices all the time. Even when I ask my family for help, it’s still not enough.”

A study by the National Employment Law Project found that the mean wage for subcontractor workers at Philadelphia International Airport is $7.85 per hour.

The airport employees, who have been fighting for a higher wage for almost two years, have found an ally in faith leaders such as Rev. Cean James. 

“We are celebrating with Washington, but I know Philadelphia to be a competitive city,” he said at the rally. “There’s no way we’re going to allow another city to do more than we’re doing.”

Officials in Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration have said that the requirement would likely limit competition and reduce the number of available airport jobs.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.