by Sue Ann Rybak

Rondell Johnson, 22, formerly of Chestnut Hill, is just struggling to survive. Johnson, who works full-time as a baggage handler at Philadelphia International Airport, is just one of many hardworking Americans working for minimum wage.

“I am barely paying the bills,” said Johnson, who has asthma, in an interview earlier this year.

Johnson, who lives in North Philadelphia with his cousin, cannot afford to pay for the health insurance offered by his company. As a service worker employed by a company contracted by the airlines at Philadelphia International Airport, he is not entitled to the 21st Century Living Wage Law, which requires all employees on city contracts to be paid a minimum of $10.88 an hour plus benefits.

“Sometimes, I have to go to the hospital at night to get a breathing treatment and an inhaler,” Johnson said. “Whenever I have any kind of medical problem, I am forced to go to the emergency room because I make too much money to qualify for free health insurance.”

Thousands of airport employees work for poverty wages: $7.25 an hour with no benefits. Despite the fact that the airport is a major economic engine that generates more than $14.4 billion in spending.

But thanks to City Council’s recent unanimous decision to place a “living wage” referendum on the Spring 2014 ballot, that may change. If it does, Johnson and thousands of other workers can breathe a little easier.

The legislation was passed by City Council after organizations like Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), a faith-based community organization that works to be a “voice for justice in Philadelphia,” rallied to demand that profitable airline subcontractors and other subcontractors on city-funded projects pay a living wage. The “living wage” referendum, if passed by voters, would result in new, higher wage and benefit standards that would help lift thousands of Philadelphia workers out of poverty.

Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr., who introduced the bill, stressed the importance of thorough implementation of the expansion following the vote.

“This is not a question of policy, this is a question of authority,” said Goode. “We answered the question of policy several years ago when we established the 21st Century Minimum Wage and Benefits Standard. We’ve already established the policy, now we need to change the charter to confirm council’s authority.”

The Rev. Linda Noonan, co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, applauded the council’s unanimous decision.

“It is a good day when our elected officials make it possible for working people to live with dignity,” Noonan said. “At this very moment, 40 percent of Philadelphians who are working and have jobs continue to live in poverty. This is morally unacceptable. People who work 40 hours a week should not be poor. A person who works full-time should not go hungry. A mother who works full time should not have to decide between medicine for one child and feeding her family. Not in a city where some of our corporations are making huge profits while we the taxpayers are subsidizing food stamps and aid to keep those same families afloat.”

The Rev. Ernest Flores, pastor at the Second Baptist Church of Germantown, said the people of Philadelphia will decide whether airport workers deserve a living wage.

“What POWER has attempted to do is what leaders in the bible like Moses, Amos and James always did, to hold civic leaders accountable to the needs of the people of the city,” Flores said. “Right now, we have a law that assures a livable wage for airport workers. However, contractors have been skirting that law by using subcontractors who are not beholden to that law, or so they argue, and they pay people as little as $5 an hour for full-time jobs.

“This referendum puts the power back with the people. The people of the city, not just politicians, will have the say over whether we approve of people making $5 an hour for full time jobs or whether we want fair and livable wages for the people of this city.”

The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, rector of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill – one of the many congregations involved in POWER – said it was “in our power to guarantee a living wage to workers who work in settings where our tax dollars make their work possible.”

“The idea that it is ever OK to pay adult workers starvation wages is just appalling,” Kerbel said. “When a company wants 40 hours per week or more of a worker’s time, that work needs to pay enough for housing, food, clothing and the necessities of life.”

Pati Krasensky, of St. Vincent De Paul Parish in Germantown, said Philadelphia was close to “a big win for minimum wage workers in Philadelphia.”

“It is not often we see the fruits of our labor,” Krasensky said. “Sitting in City Council chambers, listening to a unanimous vote by City Council for a referendum for a living wage, was both humbling and uplifting. Knowing that in some small way, I was instrumental in moving forward systemic change in our city, that is a humbling, and empowering moment.”

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough, said POWER’s mission, to “organize and empower the people of Philadelphia to live and work together so that God’s presence is known on every block, that people work together to transform the conditions of their neighborhood, and that life flourishes for all,” is directly aligned with Mishkan Shalom ‘s core values.

Zevit said for 25 years, Mishkan Shalom has worked to promote “health and vitality” and “equality and justice” not only in its congregation but within its community. Mishkan Shalom, which means “sanctuary of peace,” was founded on principles of social justice, inclusiveness and Tikkun Olam – the Jewish value for repair of the world.

“We are committed to this endeavor,” Zevit said.

He added that by putting power back in the community’s hands, organizations like POWER are “healing what is broken in the world.”

For more information about POWER, go to or call 215-232-7697.

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