Airport workers in suburban Seattle take on living wage debate at the ballot box

SeaTac, Wash., is aptly named after the airport located there. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is the city’s largest employer and could soon be boosting their minimum wage for employees to $15 per hour. Paul Solman reports on the debate surrounding the nation’s latest living wage initiative, SeaTac’s Proposition 1.

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    Next: the second of our two reports on the movement to raise the minimum wage to what some say should be a living wage.

    Last night, Hari Sreenivasan chronicled the struggles of a fast-food worker in New York supporting a family on $8 an hour.

    Tonight, we go to a Seattle suburb where voters are deciding today whether to raise the minimum wage to nearly twice that much.

    The NewsHour's economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has the story, part of his coverage on Making Sense of financial news.

  • WOMAN:

    Do we want living wages for SeaTac workers?

  • GROUP:



    The country's latest living wage initiative: a $15-an-hour floor for workers in burgeoning SeaTac, Washington, population 25,000, named after and built up around the Seattle-Tacoma Airport located there, labor on one side, business on the other, as in similar contests around the country.

    But this is a big one, with total spending on the rival campaigns approaching $300 per likely voter.

    ABDIRAHMAN ABDULLAHI, supporter of minimum wage increase: Hey, how are you?


    Many of the 6,000 or so workers who would benefit from the proposed increase in the minimum wage live in complexes like this in SeaTac, among them, Abdirahman Abdullahi, a Somali political refugee 11 years ago. Abdullahi works at the airport.


    Now I make $11.20…


    Eleven dollars and 20 cents?


    … because I'm a supervisor with Hertz rental car, and I have been working with them since 2007. I work two jobs at the airport, 16 hours a day.


    That's because one job, at $11.20 an hour in and around Seattle, is not what sociologist Diana Pearce calls a sufficiency wage.

  • DIANA PEARCE, sociologist:

    It's the minimum you need to meet all your needs without any assistance; that's public assistance like food stamps and private assistance like sharing housing or getting free baby-sitting from a relative. It's a bare-bones budget, only grocery food, no takeout or restaurant food, just to meet your basics.


    So, for SeaTac, what's the number?


    We have done the standards for South King County, where SeaTac is located, and, for example, an adult with a teenager needs $15.01 an hour. If you have got a couple kids, it's going to be $21 to $24 an hour, depending upon their ages. If — even if you have two adults working and, say, they have a school-age and a preschooler, it's going to be almost $15 an hour each working full-time.


    So, $15-an-hour isn't exactly fat city. Moreover, says initiative supporter David Rolf of the service workers union:

    DAVID ROLF, union president: It's the right thing to do. Right now, we have corporations making record profits, but paying their employees minimum wage or not much more. The impact of impoverishing these workers who used to make $16 an hour in the 1970s and '80s has been the decimation of the economic base of this community.


    You mean they used to make $16 or $18 an hour, adjusted for inflation?


    No. They made $16 or $18 an hour in 1977 dollars in 1977.


    But if you can't live on Washington State's minimum wage of $9.19, highest in the nation, how do you survive?


    You end up receiving Medicaid, receiving food stamps, perhaps a housing voucher, perhaps transportation assistance. One of our state senators asked the state legislative staff to calculate how much the public spends for every low-wage job at SeaTac, and it's about $20,000 a year.


    In SeaTac, private benefactors also help, supplying free food at a local Methodist church, for example. What brought the living wage issue home to Reverend Jan Bolerjack?

  • REV. JAN BOLERJACK, Riverton United Methodist Church:

    When I saw people who were working full-time, especially at the airport, coming and standing in line at my food pantry here, they work all day or all night and still not have enough to be able to feed their families.


    To the reverend, things have gotten progressively worse since she arrived in SeaTac 21 years ago, have gotten progressively un-Christian.


    I believe the gap between the top and the bottom has gotten bigger, and also that the top just doesn't even notice what's happening to the bottom.

    Corporate executives that are, you know, making big money, I don't think they're seeing what's happening to their workers. I don't think in good conscience they could be seeing it and leaving it the way it is.


    Economist Peter Hall also frames the living wage push in terms of growing inequality.

  • PETER HALL, economist:

    This is an attempt at the local level to take a very important facility in the global economy and attempt to try to have some compensation from the winners to the losers.


    Winners like the frequent flyers who haven't balked at a modest bump in airport prices in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, which have passed similar living wage laws, winners like airport companies owned by shareholders who've also been flying high for years.

    SeaTac handled a record 33 million passengers last year, who spent $180 million at places like Anthony's, the top grossing airport restaurant in North America. Alaska Airlines, headquartered in SeaTac, just reported record third-quarter income. And yet, in 2005, living wage advocates declaim, Alaska airlines terminated 500 unionized ramp workers here, rehired some as lower-paid non-union contractors.

    Moreover, many airport workers get no sick leave, none. Roxan Seibel's been working at SeaTac for 30 years, has two adopted daughters, considers herself lucky to be making $13.95 an hour.

    ROXAN SEIBEL, SeaTac airport employee: I have been sick enough over the years where I have thrown up in the garbage cans. And if I call in sick, I get a point, which is a demerit against me.


    Enough demerits, and she loses her job.


    I had pneumonia once that took me over three months to get over, and I was sick and I was going to work every day. And I would lay in bed and I was coughing, curled up in the fetal position, and my body was just one giant ache.


    So, what's the argument against?

    MAXFORD NELSEN, opponent of minimum wage increase: There's two main reasons we would oppose Prop 1.


    An enforced living wage will hurt both employers and employees, insists opposition spokesman Maxford Nelsen.


    When you see minimum wages increase dramatically, as Prop 1 would do, employers tend to hire fewer workers or they lay workers off.

    It's also very difficult for businesses to comply with Prop 1, because we're not just dealing with an increase in the minimum wage. We're also dealing with paid sick leave requirements, increased record-keeping requirements, restrictions in hiring part-time workers, and a host of other requirements that these businesses have to comply with.


    Now, the living wage ordinance wouldn't apply to small employers like Mike West or Daryl Tapio or most non-airport-related businesses like Dave's Diner, where we met them. But local homebuilder Tapio says the nine-page law tries to do too much too fast.

    DARYL TAPIO, resident of SeaTac: It's very hard to adjust to a $5 or $6 increase in the minimum wage overnight. And if all the rules change, then it totally changes the economics of the business.


    Mike West has run a nearby body shop for 40 years, insists that entry-level workers can't possibly be worth $15 an hour. They don't know, he says:

    MIKE WEST, opponent of minimum wage increase: How to straighten a fender, how to paint a fender, how to prepare a car for a paint job, how to weld something. These are jobs that no beginner could possibly know.


    But how much of a difference is it going to make in your prices to be paying somebody, a few people, $15 as opposed to $9 and change?


    Well, I guess that's a crux of the situation here. We shouldn't be getting between the employers and the employees.


    Especially as it would force them to raise what they pay in order to compete with the airport for workers.

    In the end, then, a familiar fight, which growing economic inequality makes current, between those trying to slow what they call a race to the bottom of ever lower wages and work standards vs. those for whom a market system is really a race to the top, providing cheaper goods and services to us all.


    The results of SeaTac's referendum may not be known for several days. That's because all Washington State ballots are cast by mail.