July 2, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 27

News

By court or by commission, airport workers poised to see their wages take off

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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Workers at Sea-Tac Airport will get a raise of some kind in 2015. It’s just a matter of how much.

Washington Supreme Court judges are determining whether the city of SeaTac can impose a minimum wage law on Sea-Tac Airport, which is also under the jurisdiction of the Port of Seattle.

If the court agrees that the $15-an-hour law SeaTac voters passed in November applies to the airport, the law will go into effect immediately.

But regardless of what the judges decide, workers at the airport will still get a raise.

The Port of Seattle Commission, which governs Sea-Tac Airport, passed its own living wage policy July 1, which mandates workers earn $13 to $15.50 an hour.

The Commission announced its living wage policy June 24, just two days before its lawyers headed to Olympia to make their case to the Washington Supreme Court that the Port is not governed by the city of SeaTac. They argued that the law SeaTac voters passed in November is too broad and hurts the operations of Sea-Tac Airport.

“SeaTac can’t regulate in the city of Bothell anymore than it can at the airport,” said Timothy Leyh, a lawyer representing the Port of Seattle, which joined Alaska Airlines and Filo Foods in suing to overturn SeaTac’s law.

Lawyers defending SeaTac’s law disagreed, arguing that Sea-Tac Airport is not above the laws of the city in which it is located, and that the Port’s recent policy proves that SeaTac’s law is not harmful to airport businesses.

By passing its own minimum wage law, “the Port has conceded that this ordinance does not interfere with airport operations,” said Wayne Tanaka, a lawyer representing the city of SeaTac.

The Washington Supreme Court typically makes a decision three months after oral arguments. If the judges agree that the law applies, businesses at Sea-Tac Airport will have to pay workers $15 an hour and back pay, because the law went into effect Jan. 1.

SeaTac’s minimum wage law has faced legal opposition from the beginning. Alaska Airlines and Filo Foods fought the initiative before it went to voters, disputing the language of the law and many of the signatures proponents collected to put it on the ballot.

Proponents prevailed, and voters passed the law by just 77 votes Nov. 5.

The law was meant to apply to people working at Sea-Tac Airport and in hotels, parking lots, rental car companies and restaurants attached to the airport or hotels.

Alaska Airlines and Filo Foods sued again after the law passed, putting the law on hold for workers at the airport. As a result, only 1,600 workers at 11 hotels and two large parking lots in SeaTac received a raise on Jan. 1.

An estimated 14,500 people work at Sea-Tac Airport, including baggage handlers, flight attendants, restaurant employees and security officers. Many make less than $11 an hour, including ramp and fuel agents, according to the Port of Seattle.

Other airports, including Los Angeles, Oakland and St. Louis, have living wage laws ranging from $11 to $16 an hour.

Under the Port’s policy, workers will eventually earn $15.50 an hour, but with some caveats. The policy allows employers to count other benefits as wages, including tips and contributions to employees’ medical plans and retirement accounts.

According to the policy, workers will receive $13.72-an-hour in wages and benefits or $11.22-an-hour not counting benefits. In 2017, the wages increase to $13.00, not counting benefits, or $15.50 counting benefits.

Port of Seattle Commissioners argued that the proposal is a proactive response to workers’ demands for better wages.

“It would have been very easy to punt; to let the courts decide,” said Commissioner Stephanie Bowman.

Minimum wage activists, however, say the commissioners are wasting their time passing a wage that is weaker than what voters wanted.

“It’s not enough; it’s not all that was passed by the voters,” said Jess Spear, organizing director of 15 Now, an activist group that formed in January to support Seattle’s efforts to create a city-based minimum wage. “[The Port of Seattle] isn’t your own little kingdom.”

The Port’s minimum wage should have little influence on the case before the Washington Supreme Court, said Dmitri Iglitzin, a lawyer representing the SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs, which proposed the SeaTac minimum wage law.

The Port’s minimum wage is, if anything, an argument in favor of the $15-an-hour law, he said.

“I think of it really as a full-throated endorsement of the fundamental principal at issue in this case,” Iglitzen said in a telephone conference with reporters June 25.

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