For all the tourists and business travelers passing through town on their way to the airport, SeaTac still has more than its share of people struggling to make ends meet.
Nearly 4,300 of the city’s 27,000 residents live in poverty, and 17 percent of households are on food stamps — the third-highest percentage in King County, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates.
Now, a group backed by the Service Employees International Union wants to raise the minimum wage in SeaTac by 63 percent, a move aimed at raising the incomes of thousands of baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and other workers in and around Sea-Tac Airport.
The so-called Good Jobs Initiative, up for a public vote this fall, would lift the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for hospitality, transportation and other airport-related businesses.
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Whether the pay raise would help or hurt SeaTac’s economy is shaping up to be one of the most contentious debates ever in this airport-dominated town.
A standing-room-only crowd turned out Tuesday night for a SeaTac City Council hearing to see Labor square off against Business.
After two hours, the council voted unanimously to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, ensuring several months of heavy politicking on both sides and possibly some legal wrangling by opponents.
Scott Ostrander, general manager of Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac, said the measure would force him to lay off workers. “I’m going to have to take away their livelihoods,” Ostrander told the council. “That hurts. It really, really hurts.”
He was met by testimonials from former and current airport workers who described toiling for years in poverty-wage jobs, with almost no room for advancement and few benefits.
“Unfortunately, I have only two paid sick days a year,” said Pascasie Mukaruziga, who works at an airport cafe. “All of us have to come to work sick with colds, flu and worse, even though we know our customers may get sick.”
Along with a pay raise, the measure gives airport-related workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked.
SeaTac is poised to surpass San Francisco for the highest minimum wage of any American city, putting it front and center in a national debate over the use of government regulations to increase worker pay.
In February, President Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 and to tie it to inflation. Obama renewed that call Wednesday in a speech in Ohio, noting it’s the fourth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum was raised.
Wal-Mart has threatened to drop plans for three new stores in Washington, D.C., if the mayor signs a measure requiring large nonunion retailers to pay workers at least $12.50 an hour.
Locally, fast-food workers staged a May 30 walkout to push for pay of at least $15 an hour. And Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, in the midst of a tough re-election bid, recently said he won’t support a new Whole Foods development in West Seattle unless the grocer pays its workers more.
Mark Thoma, an economics professor at the University of Oregon, said widespread concerns over income inequality are behind the efforts to increase wages for low- and mid-skilled workers.
“We’re seeing corporate profits and bank deposits pile up. But at the lower end, we’ve seen stagnant wages for the last 20 or 30 years,” Thoma said. “People are starting to ask, ‘Is there a fair distribution between profits and wages?’ ”
Proponents of the SeaTac raise say it mainly would affect large, multinational corporations that can afford to pay their workers more.
Advocates also argue the measure would bring Sea-Tac Airport in line with other major West Coast airports. Workers at Los Angeles International make at least $15.73 an hour, while the minimum at San Jose International is $14.71, according to a report by Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit community and labor organization.
Sea-Tac baggage handler Alex Hoopes says he makes $9.50 an hour after more than four years with Air Serv. He says he’s able to make ends meet because he lives in a Lakewood rental house for only $150 a month and serves as its caretaker. He also seeks overtime and rides the bus to work.
“I’d like a nice car, but my first priority is my health and having enough food,” Hoopes said.
The Good Jobs Initiative comes after labor groups tried for several years to raise airport wages via the Legislature and Port of Seattle.
They collected signatures from more than 1,900 people in SeaTac over the past few months.
And so far, they have managed to deflect a legal challenge from Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association.
Initiative spokeswoman Heather Weiner says that unlike Wal-Mart, hospitality and transportation companies in and around the airport are not likely to move elsewhere to avoid the wage proposal.
Alaska Airlines, based in SeaTac, released a statement Wednesday saying that while it respects the City Council’s decision to put the proposal to a vote, it considers the initiative “seriously flawed.”
One of the airline’s objections is that it violates a state law requiring initiatives to address a single issue only.
Other critics contend that city taxpayers would end up covering the measure’s enforcement costs, while only a small percentage of airport workers actually live in SeaTac.
They also warn that inexperienced workers would have a hard time finding airport jobs. And they note that at $9.19 an hour, Washington already has the highest minimum wage of any state.
“We now take risks on people because we think we can train them,” said Bob Donegan, president of Seattle-based Ivar’s, which has a restaurant in the airport’s Central Terminal. “If we have to start them at $15 an hour, we’re only going to hire experienced people.”
But unlike in other minimum-wage debates, some airport businesses can’t say the pay raise automatically means higher prices for consumers. Their contracts with the Port of Seattle prohibit airport merchants from marking up prices beyond what they charge elsewhere.
Michele Manasse, who owns seven Fireworks gift shops, including two at the airport, says she might pull out of SeaTac if the measure passes.
The airport stores operate daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., longer than her other locations, so payroll costs already run high.
“Business is good. There are 30 million people walking through the airport every year,” Manasse said. “But if we can’t make a profit, there would be no reason to stay.”
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.