Elections 2013
5:26 pm
Thu October 24, 2013

Sea-Tac Workers Hope For $15 Wage: 'We Really Need Help Right Now'

The food court at Sea-Tac International Airport looks out on runway.
Credit Flickr Photo/Alan Turkus

Suwanee Pringle, a worker at a shop at Sea-Tac International Airport, lights up at the mention of Proposition 1, which would raise her wage to $15 an hour.

"I’m really going to be happy, " Pringle said. "So I can afford to pay all my bills. Now I cannot afford to eat. I eat a cup of noodles even though I work so hard."

Washington state’s minimum wage may be the highest in the country at $9.19 an hour, but voters in the City of SeaTac could raise the hourly minimum by 63 percent for people whose jobs are tied to the airport.

Denia Stovall, who works with Pringle, said that although she makes better than minimum wage now, the potential increase would make a big difference to her.

"If we can go up a little bit more I would really, really appreciate it," she said.

SeaTac’s living wage proposition has its roots in the 1990s in Baltimore, where church groups and labor unions noticed that some people at shelters actually had full-time jobs.

Within a few years, the movement hit the West Coast. Living wage laws kicked in at LAX in Los Angeles and Bay Area airports, including SFO. Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said the laws had dramatic effects. Before the minimum wage raise, turnover among lower-paid jobs at San Francisco airport was 50 percent a year.

"When we came back six months after the law had gone into effect, we found that the turnover rate had fallen to 20 percent," Jacobs said. "And there were dramatic impacts on worker performance and productivity reported by both sides."

Unions are the proposition's biggest backers, with nearly a million dollars in the campaign’s war chest. Those opposed include Alaska Airlines. Half the flights leaving Sea-Tac are Alaska’s. And Alaska’s decision to outsource services like baggage handling has been a sore spot for the unions.

"This is uniquely pointed at us and here at little old SeaTac, Washington, and it’s not the kind of problem that can be solved on a one-off basis like this," said Keith Loveless, executive vice president of Alaska Airlines. "It’s just a crazy competitive business and every penny counts, and in order to be successful and continue the success that we’ve had – and continue to provide the jobs that we’ve provided – it matters."

Loveless did not say what Alaska would do if SeaTac’s voters pass Proposition 1. But raising the minimum wage by so much means businesses would likely make adjustments, said Richard Davis of the Washington Research Council, a business policy think tank.

"That’s rethinking job operations. It’s a different way of doing business. One of the consequences of that, however, is a net reduction in jobs," Davis said. "And you can move that from parking lots to car rental agencies. It just requires people to rethink how they do business."

Outside the terminal doors at Sea-Tac, some workers have heard the speculation that they might lose jobs or work time because of a higher minimum wage. Bernard McFarland is a luggage porter with five children. He says he needs to risk it.

"Mostly a lot of business people, they’re challenging us," he said. "They’re going to lay off some people. But the thing is that we really need help right now. That $15 an hour can help us right now."

Traci Garrett, an assistant manager at a restaurant inside the terminal, said the proposition could complicate her business’s pay scale, as Proposition 1 could have her staff paid a third more than she.  

"Our assistant managers all across the board nationwide with Vino Volo only make $10 an hour," Garrett said. "And the rest of our workers get paid minimum wage. So if we had the rest of the workers outside the airport and here making more than the assistant manager here, that would be something really interesting and difficult to figure out at a national base."

If Vino Volo is subject to Proposition 1, Garrett said, the company would be unlikely to change its assistant manager wages at Sea-Tac.

At an electronics store nearby, manager Katherine McLaurin said she needs to know more about Proposition 1. "There could be some positive to it," she said. "I mean it will help us in the hiring process. It could help us be a little bit more particular with who we hire."

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