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SeaTac $15 wage win tempered by recount, legal hurdles

SEIU Local 6 president Sergio Salinas speaks at a Nov. 26 Yes! for SeaTac press conference about election results. Credit: Photo: Bill Lucia

Opponents of a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage for workers at some businesses in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to $15 announced on Tuesday that they were calling for a recount in the narrowly decided and closely watched contest.

The prospect of a recount and more legal hurdles hardly stopped supporters from celebrating their narrow victory in the three-week-long vote count by King County Elections. The initiative, SeaTac Proposition 1, which eked out a 77-vote victory, has garnered national attention as other cities, including Seattle, weigh the merits of upping their minimum wages. Supporters pointed to the measure's potential for spurring wider action.

The hot-button ballot measure continues to pit business owners, who say they can’t afford the 63 percent wage hike, against workers ,who say they can’t make ends meet. Proposition 1 is also facing legal challenges. Two small food businesses, Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association have a case pending against the city of SeaTac, the city's clerk and the Port of Seattle in King County Superior Court, contending the ballot measure violates state and federal laws.

“When an election is this close, everyone should be assured the outcome is as certain as possible,” Scott Ostrander, co-chair of Common Sense SeaTac, the campaign opposed to the initiative, said in an emailed statement about the recount.

Common Sense SeaTac has requested a hand recount, which, according to Kim van Ekstrom, chief communications officer for King County Elections, will likely get underway next week. “We’ll get on it really quickly because we’re anxious to get it done,” she said.

SeaTac voters cast a total of 6,003 ballots for and against Proposition 1. Certified election results released on Tuesday show 50.64 percent of those votes for the measure, with 49.36 percent opposed.

Around the time Common Sense Seattle announced the recount request, supporters of Proposition 1 were extolling its passage at a press conference in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s Arrival Hall.

“Workers at Sea-Tac deserve better pay and better benefits,” said Sergio Salinas, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 6, and a backer of the Yes! for SeaTac campaign. “We are making history nationally.”

Labor organizations contributed heftily to the Yes! for SeaTac campaign. One of the top donors was the SEIU Washington State Council, which gave $165,000. The Service Employees International Union gave $106,000 and SEIU Healthcare 775NW chipped in $50,000. In total, the campaign raised $1.4 million.

By comparison, the Common Sense Sea Tac campaign raised just over $665,000. Alaska Airlines gave $126,000, the Washington Lodging Political Action Committee contributed $109,000 and the American Car Rental Association dropped $100,000 in the pot.

Proposition 1 would apply to roughly 6,300 workers at 72 non-union businesses in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The initiative includes exemptions for off-airport restaurants that are not part of hotels, grocery stores and airport retail businesses with less than 10 employees, along with hotels and parking lots that are smaller-sized.

Washington’s current minimum wage is $9.19 per hour. In addition to the $5.81 bump in hourly pay, the initiative would provide up to 6.5 days of paid sick leave a year for full-time airport employees and would prevent owners taking over businesses from firing existing staff during the first three months.

“The upshot is that businesses will look to reduce costs either directly in labor, by reducing positions, or by creating other efficiencies,” said Common Sense SeaTac spokesman Gary Smith. Rental car companies, he said, could look toward automation and hotel restaurants might shy away from hiring servers and offer buffet style meals instead. “It’s likely there will be fewer jobs as a result of the initiative,” Smith said.

Dave Rolf, president of Service Employees International Union Local Healthcare 775NW, said at the press conference on Monday that concerns about job cuts are overblown. He cited an October 2013 report that discusses the effect of wage increases at California airports. Academic studies cited in the report found that the pay increases for low-wage workers did not cause the number of airport jobs to decline, but did reduce employee turnover rates.

Among the legal challenges facing the initiative are questions about whether the city of SeaTac has the authority to enact the legislation and whether the ballot measure included more issues than are allowed under state law. Paul McElroy, a spokesman for Alaska Airlines, said the company also contends that the initiative violates federal laws, including the National Labor Relations Act and the Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

“We recognize income inequality is an issue,” McElroy said. “We believe that the city of SeaTac would be better served by a different approach to the issue.” He adds, “It should be solved by a proposition or an initiative that’s legal.”

While the initiative would not affect Alaska’s employees, most of whom are unionized, it would affect the airline's contractors.

“Presumably they would pass those costs along to us,” McElroy said, adding that the expenses created by the initiative would eventually trickle down to consumers. “Like any business, if we’re faced with significantly higher costs, that’s going to affect how we price our tickets.”

Alex Hoopes, who used to work as a baggage and cargo handler for Alaska, said he was making $21 an hour in 2005, before the company laid him off. After a stint working for an airline in Hawaii, he returned to Washington and now makes $9.50 an hour for Air Serv, a contractor that provides baggage handling and airplane-cleaning services. “This gives me an opportunity to have a house, instead of paying rent,” he said, referring to the initiative.

“We’re tired of waiting," said Rolf, the SEIU 775NW president, "for CEOs and Congress to do the right thing."

Smith, the Common Sense SeaTac spokesman, emphasized that many of the businesses affected by the initiative are not big corporations. “The rental car agencies, a lot of those are franchise-based,” he said. “Most of the airport food providers are individual owners or franchises.”

During his remarks at the press conference, Rolf acknowledged that the eventual success or failure of the initiative would likely be decided in court. “We’re not naïve about the challenges that are going to come ahead,” he said. “This is a great first step and SeaTac is only one city in the region.”

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