In pursuit of ‘living wage’

Voters in SeaTac, Wash., passed the nation’s highest municipal minimum wage last fall, but the city’s largest employer has led a court battle to thwart the ordinance’s implementation.

SEATAC, Wash. — Last November, voters in this community where Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is located passed a city ordinance raising wages to a minimum of $15 per hour: the highest municipal minimum in the nation and more than twice the federal base. In December, a King County Superior Court judge ruled, however, that the law applies only to hotel and parking lot employees in SeaTac itself, not airport employees and contracted workers.

The Nov. 5 ballot measure passed by only 77 votes out of about 6,000.

The ruling exempts most workers at SeaTac’s largest employer, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Yes!ForSeaTac and Puget Sound Sage, who both advocated for the increase, estimate about 4,700 employees of airlines, contractors, shops and hotels are excluded. They say about 1,600 hospitality and service workers outside the airport property will benefit.

The lawsuit challenging the 61% increase in minimum wage was brought by a group that included the Washington Restaurant Assn. and Alaska Airlines, the airport’s largest employer. The Superior Court ruling has been appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

Proposition 1

The Nov. 5 ballot measure, Proposition 1, passed by only 77 votes out of about 6,000. SeaTac comprises about 10 square miles and a population of 27,000. It surrounds the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, which is owned and operated by the Port of Seattle.

Proposition 1 applies to hotels with 100 or more rooms and at least 30 non-managerial employees, and to lots with more than 100 parking spaces and at least 25 non-managerial employees.

Under SeaTac Proposition 1, many airport workers would not only receive a pay increase, but would also receive paid sick leave among other benefits. According to workers’ advocacy group Puget Sound Sage, the increase approved under Proposition 1 put workers on a similar compensation level as other West Coast international airports, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Making a difference for most vulnerable

The Rev. Jan Bolerjack, pastor at Riverton Park United Methodist Church in nearby Tukwila, became involved in the campaign to raise the minimum wage after Puget Sound Sage conducted an outreach to the faith community. “For me it was a great experience of bringing labor, community advocates, and faith communities together to make a difference for the most vulnerable in our community,” she said.

Jan Bolerjack

Riverton Park UMC, which Bolerjack began serving seven years ago, has a food bank that serves surrounding communities, including SeaTac airport. Bolerjack said she noticed early in her ministry that some folks lining up for food wore airport-worker uniforms.

At first Bolerjack thought these uniforms might be thrift-shop used items, but she soon learned that these were indeed airport employees. “They were making so much less than a living wage that they needed to supplement their food supplies for their families by coming to the food bank,” she said. “I learned more and more of their stories of unstable work hours, unsafe working conditions, no sick leave and jobs threatened when they or family members got sick.”

’Propped’ her up

Those stories fit right in to what Puget Sound Sage was also seeing, which influenced her positive response to the faith community outreach.

Puget Sound Sage was great at "propping" Bolerjack up as a public figure during the campaign, according to her. They provided talking points, speaking engagements, press conferences and, most importantly, the data and political expertise to back up the stories she could tell.

“Our early action was to try to work with the biggest airport employer, Alaska Airlines, but we didn't get much response,” Bolerjack said. “Then with the help of Working Washington, we attempted to get the workers unionized, but the employers resisted. The next step was a ballot measure for the airport and hospitality industry in SeaTac.”

Advocate for the community

Bolerjack said extra effort was made to register new immigrant populations and those who had been underrepresented at the polls in recent elections.

The Riverton Park UMC congregation opened its facility to house the campaign work and community events. Bolerjack said the congregation supported her participation as a spokesperson for the campaign and as an advocate for the community. “My church continues to be known more for its advocacy and care,” she added.

SeaTac has become a model for other communities, according to Bolerjack. “I see the idea of living wage rather than minimum wage moving quickly to other communities to change the culture,” she said “I also see labor and faith leaders working together in more creative ways in the future.”

Minimum wages

President Obama is pushing for an increase in the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25, the rate it’s been since 2009. As of January, 21 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above the federal requirement, compared with 18 two years ago. Nine additional states could join them by the end of 2014.

A Washington state minimum of $9.32 per hour went into effect Jan. 1, making it the highest in the nation. It stands to be surpassed by California, which recently approved a $10 minimum, phased in over two years.

San Francisco has the highest municipal minimum wage, at $10.55, but wage rates over $11 have advanced in Washington, D.C., and in the Massachusetts Senate, according to the National Employment Law Project. A few places have special district wage rules over $15, including Los Angeles International Airport, where workers get a minimum of $15.37.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has directed his staff to move toward raising the minimum wage for city workers to $15. A task force of business, community and labor leaders is expected to recommend legislation this spring.

Editor's note: The United Methodist Social Principles in ¶163C declare, "Every person has the right to a job at a living wage" (The Economic Community).

United Methodist Resolution #4135 "Rights of Workers" points out that since 1908, the denomination has advocated for a living wage in every industry (1908 Social Creed) and continues to support the rights of workers to share fully in the prosperity of society. "Unfortunately, too many workers earn poverty wages with few benefits," the resolution states. Among other recommendations, the United Methodist Church supports efforts in the U.S. Congress to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. 

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