Under a new Philadelphia law, security guards working at institutions like Penn had their wages raised to $15 per hour. Although Penn has had months to comply with the new rule, security guards are currently not receiving the pay they deserve. Penn must pay workers the living wage they deserve and that is now mandated by the city.
Last year, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney set a July deadline for Penn and other institutions to meet the city’s prevailing wage laws, which require that security guards be paid $15 an hour at hospitals, universities, and other institutions that receive public funding. As of September, hourly wages at Penn were still fixed at $11.85, which has lead Kenney to threaten to eliminate the nonprofit water bill reduction for these institutions. This reduction, which gives eligible nonprofits a 25% discount on water bills, saved Penn more than $2.2 million in 2018, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The legality of this case has not yet been resolved, although the city or the security guard’s union could pursue legal action against the University. What muddies the waters is that Penn does not pay the security guards directly, rather going through the contractor Allied Universal Security Services. Regardless, the University must comply with the spirit of the law and insist that contractors are paid fairly. Paying substandard wages is morally reprehensible and shows a disregard for the well-being of Penn’s staff, which the University could not operate without.
Further, it is harmful to Penn’s relationship with the City of Philadelphia. Penn is the largest private employer in Philadelphia County and touts the economic impact on the city and state overall as a great contribution. But this contribution rings hollow if Penn cannot treat its workers with the dignity they deserve and pay them a living wage.
The prevailing wage law was introduced after years of union advocacy as a way of helping workers support their families. “Working class Philadelphians should not have to struggle to support their families if they are employed, especially by world-class institutions," Kenney said when he announced the new law.
By standing against the city’s efforts to provide guards with a living wage, Penn neglects its moral responsibility towards its employees. Penn should instead work to ensure that all employees can provide for themselves and their families instead of just reaching subsistence level.
Penn’s actions also set an example for future business leaders that could reverberate far beyond campus. Many future business leaders will graduate from the Wharton School. If students come to Penn to learn how to create, run, and work for a business, what kind of message does it send that Penn itself cannot pay its employees a proper living wage? Penn has an obligation — not just as a business, but also as a university — to lead by example. Penn must teach all students to treat employees fairly and to fight for better conditions.
Additionally, there is already tension between Penn and the Philadelphia community — Penn’s wage practices will only lead to further division and animosity. This city’s mayor has rightfully spoken out against Penn, portraying the University in a negative light to workers and residents throughout Philadelphia. With an $11.85 hourly wage, local citizens ought to be mistrustful of Penn and the jobs offered on campus. If security guard wages are not raised, Penn could become more of an adversary to the community.
Not only do security guards work day and night to ensure the Penn community’s safety, but they also bring life and personality to campus and work long hours, often standing outside in the cold. The people that serve us daily deserve to be compensated fairly, particularly now that the city has codified this right. Not only does Penn have a legal responsibility to act, but a moral responsibility as well.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.