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Why your baggage handler may be on food stamps

Joshua Vina works as a baggage handler at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — the site of Washington state’s first push for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

As Making Sen$e reported last fall, voters in Sea-Tac, the community surrounding the airport, narrowly approved a ballot initiative — known as Proposition 1 — to raise the minimum wage and provide workers with paid sick days. But nearly 5,000 workers at the airport still haven’t gotten their raises because Alaska Airlines, which represents half of the airport’s traffic, has challenged the initiative in court.

The airline argued that the Port of Seattle, not voters, has the authority to regulate business at the airport, and a King County judge agreed with them last year. The state Supreme Court is expected to take up the case next month.

Vina is one of those workers who has yet to see a raise. He’s still making the starting salary of $9.50 an hour with no sick pay. As he explains in our broadcast piece, below, the two days he was out with bronchitis will cost him — and his family. Vina has been injured on the job three times, and when he was in pain and had to stay home, he lost those days as well. He, his wife and his young son already rely on public assistance — a $290 monthly housing allowance, $378 in food stamps and subsidized health care.

As the debate over the minimum wage has gained national attention this year, first with President Barack Obama calling for $10.10 an hour in his State of the Union address, and most recently, fast food workers striking for $15 an hour, Alaska Airlines has been listening. They’re constantly evaluating the condition of their “vendors” (contractors), says Paul McElroy, managing director of strategic and corporate communications at Alaska Airlines.

Which is why, even with a challenge to Proposition 1 pending, Alaska decided to broker a $12 an hour starting salary for its contractors beginning with the April pay period. Alaska Airlines reached out to Making Sen$e on May 21 (after our initial report on SeaTac workers denied a raise ran on April 17) to make sure we knew that “Alaska has proactively raised pay for entry-level workers.”

It’s not the first raise they’ve instituted. Last October, Alaska Airlines and Menzies Aviation, the contractor that Vina works for, agreed on a $10.88 starting salary for baggage handlers.

So why is Vina still making $9.50 an hour when Alaska Airlines’ first-quarter profits more than doubled since last year?

As a Menzies contractor, Vina is not an employee of Alaska Airlines. The only Menzies contractors who are eligible for the $10.88, and now, $12 raise are those contractors who are assigned exclusively to Alaska Airlines, according to McElroy. Vina is assigned to “other airlines.”

The raises Alaska Airlines is offering, if Menzies were to extend them to all of its ramp workers, would be a step up for Vina, but these new rates are still several steps below what Alaska was paying its employees a decade ago — before they outsourced these jobs to Menzies and other contractors in 2005. Union-represented baggage handlers used to make an average of $13.41 an hour, nearly double the state’s then-minimum wage of $7.35 an hour, and still well above even the current state minimum wage of $9.32 (the highest in the country).

Paul Solman spoke with Vina and a fast food employee in Seattle about needing to supplement their near-minimum wages with public assistance to make ends meet for their families.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Joshua Vina does not handle baggage for Alaska Airlines.

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