Study: Most LVIA employees underpaid

Salary study done for airport board finds most LVIA employees are underpaid.

By Matt Assad, Of The Morning Call

10:38 PM EDT, October 27, 2011

Convinced many airport workers were overpaid, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority last year commissioned a $30,000 study to determine what employee pay should be.

Turns out, the study says most employees at Lehigh Valley International Airport are underpaid. Oops.
“I was against this study from the start because I knew nothing good would come of it,” an angry authority board member, Jane Baker, said as she left a recent board meeting. “We just wasted $30,000.”
Authority Chairman David Haines said though the board “accepted” the report, it disagreed with the findings. The report was done by The Segal Company of Washington, D.C.

“I wouldn’t say it’s $30,000 wasted,” Haines said. “I’d say it’s $30,000 spent to find out nothing earth-shattering. We don’t necessarily agree with the comparables they used, but we’ll keep the information going forward.”
Haines said the need for the study lessened when the authority this year decided to hire a private company to run the airport, rather than an executive director. That company, Virginia-based AvPORTS, is doing a 90-day review of all airport operations, including personnel, and will present its findings in the next month. AvPORTS is scheduled to start operating the airport Jan. 1 and could bring sweeping changes that include adjustments to the size and focus of the 110-member full-time airport staff.

Still, there’s now a study out there saying the roughly $6 million the staff is paid each year is about 10 percent below market. And it comes at a time when all three of the airport’s bargaining unit contracts are due to expire.
“I’m sure they’ll have it with them when they come to the table,” said airport Director of Administration Sherri Billowitz. “They always come with salaries from comparable workers and this gives them plenty of that.”
The study was commissioned last year and delivered in May. However, the authority wouldn’t make it public, in part, because members weren’t happy with the results and considered asking the company to reconsider some of its assumptions, according to several members.
Instead, the board Tuesday decided against spending any more money on it and released it, with several board members downplaying the idea that their attempts to save the airport money may actually make for some sticky negotiations. A Segal spokeswoman said the company considers work it does for clients confidential and does not comment.

The study looked at 36 different jobs and compared the salaries to those of people working at similar jobs at six other airports, two transit authorities, two unnamed private companies and the municipal governments of Allentown, Bethlehem, Lehigh County and Northampton County. Of those, people in 23 LVIA job classifications were being underpaid, 12 positions were being paid about market level and one was paid above market, the study said.
Overall, airport employees who garner salaries ranging from roughly $25,000 for customer service representatives to more than $90,000 for some department directors are paid about 10 percent below people in comparable markets, the study found. Those comparable markets are where some authority members disagree. While they say comparisons to local governments and even airports like those in Harrisburg and Syracuse, N.Y., made sense, other comparisons seemed to be a stretch.
“Our cost of living is nothing like San Diego,” said board member Bob Buesing, referring to the study’s use of San Diego International Airport. “That one made no sense to me.”

But Buesing noted that while the study suggests airport employees are underpaid, it also suggests they get better benefits than most. It does not assign a number to how much better, but it suggests airport employees — who contribute no money to their health-care costs — be asked to begin paying 10 percent of those costs in the future.
“In hindsight, had we known we would hire AvPORTS, we could have saved ourselves $30,000,” Buesing said. “But it’s not money wasted. We still have a picture of how our workers are paid compared to those other airports. It’s still useful information to have.”
It remains to be seen whether all that useful information will come back to haunt the airport during contract negotiations, or simply become a 138-page paperweight on an executive office shelf.
Some authority board members seemed intent on forgetting it ever happened.
“It’s best,” Haines said, “to just put this behind us.”
matthew.assad
610-820-6691

Copyright © 2011, The Morning Call

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