February 26, 2014
Vol: 51 No: 9

News

The payoff

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

For one worker in SeaTac, the passage of a $15-an-hour minimum wage has brought about big changes

SeaTac voters agreed to a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which has led to larger paychecks for some local workers. The state supreme court is reviewing a challenge to the initiative.

Photo by: Jon Williams , Arts Editor

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Every morning before class, Jamil Ahmed worked at his parents’ convenience store on 176th Street in SeaTac.

From 2005 until his parents closed the store in 2009, Ahmed worked the register for a couple hours, started his day at high school, then returned to the store at night to lock up.

Ahmed’s dad had to work two jobs to support him and his four siblings. To help his family Ahmed found full-time work at Sea-Tac Airport, most recently at a car rental facility, after he graduated from high school.

Now 23, Ahmed dreams of becoming a registered nurse, like his dad — who also drives a town car on the side — or a physician’s assistant.

Ahmed works at a parking lot in South Lake Union Monday through Friday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. and at WallyPark in SeaTac Tuesday through Saturday from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.

“At this age, I feel like I should be going to school and not working two jobs,” Ahmed said.

A vote in SeaTac may help make that happen.

In November, SeaTac voters passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage by just 77 votes. The minimum wage initiative was backed by union-supported non-profit Working Washington. 

The Washington Supreme Court is reviewing a court challenge to the voter initiative. In the meantime, Ahmed is among a small sector of workers in SeaTac benefitting from a 61 percent increase to the minimum wage.

Ahmed previously received around $600 for two weeks of work. After the initiative passed, his pay jumped to $16-an-hour — which includes a $1 bonus for working the graveyard shift. His paycheck is now close to $1,000.

According to Yes! For SeaTac, which backed the minimum-wage proposal, an estimated 1,600 workers at 11 hotels and two large parking lots not on Port of Seattle property received a raise on Jan. 1.

The increase means Ahmed now makes enough to move out of his parents’ house in Des Moines and get his own apartment. He also expects to be able to enroll in classes at Highline Community College, possibly this summer.

“I felt for the first time like the work I put in finally paid off,” Ahmed said. “It was a tremendous feeling.”

To a small number of people in this town of 27,000 who are eligible for it, the wage hike stands to have a big impact. Many of them, like Ahmed, are immigrants who came to the United States looking for better employment and education opportunities.

About 40 percent of SeaTac residents speak a language other than English. About 15 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 6.5 percent in Seattle.

“When I came here, I came with a plan, and my plan was to go to school,” Ahmed said of immigrating to the United States from Ethiopia at age 10.

Proponents of the law are working to persuade the Washington Supreme Court to extend the $15-an-hour minimum wage to the estimated 4,700 workers at Sea-Tac Airport. Shortly after the measure passed, opponents filed a lawsuit, and the King County Superior Court ruled that the law doesn’t apply at the airport, which is in the city of SeaTac but also under the jurisdiction of the Port of Seattle.

Lawyers defending the law have until March 3 to file briefings with the court, followed by 60 days for each side to respond. The court will hear the case by May or June at the earliest, said Heather Weiner, spokesperson for Yes! For SeaTac, a union-backed initiative.

Proponents say the minimum wage law is working well, with little fallout in the community. One hotel closed its restaurant and is opening a lower-cost deli, and MasterPark has added a 50-cent surcharge.

“People are pretty happy,” Weiner said.

Others warn that the new minimum wage law creates an unfair competitive edge to businesses that operate in neighboring Tukwila and in Sea-Tac Airport, where the wage does not apply.

In response to pressure from elected officials and workers, the Port of Seattle’s Board of Commissioners is discussing the possibility of creating its own living-wage policy for workers on Port property.

Some business owners in SeaTac have warned port officials that the results could be dire.

“There will be unintended consequences,” said George McCracken, MasterPark general manager, to the Port of Seattle at a Feb. 11 meeting on creating a living wage for workers at the Port.

It’s unclear which direction the port will go, said Port of Seattle spokesperson Perry Cooper.

“This is a continuing process,” he said. “[The commissioners are] really in a fact-finding situation right now.”

The Port of Seattle doesn’t have a deadline for making a decision on wages, Cooper said.

As for Sea-Tac Airport, the courts will decide sometime this summer whether city of SeaTac laws have jurisdiction.

Ahmed said the airport workers deserve the same pay he receives just outside the airport, at WallyPark. It will give them the opportunities he anticipates.

“I want to pursue the things I want to do, which is school, school, school,” Ahmed said.

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