TUKWILA — At the parking lot where Rebecca Carilao works moving rental cars, the starting wage is $14.49 an hour. At a garage across the street, where other employees from her company work, it’s $17.54.

Both are minimum-wage jobs, but the street is a border between cities. One side is Tukwila and the other is SeaTac, which has a higher minimum wage for some industries.

“This company, they don’t have any trouble paying the other people” about $3 an hour more, said Carilao, 75. “We deserve the same.”

That simple logic is part of a new campaign to raise the minimum wage for many jobs in Tukwila, including at Southcenter mall, through an initiative on the November ballot. The potential effect is harder to gauge, because COVID has altered labor market dynamics, and the campaign could be a test case for worker-focused politics in a new economic environment.

Many businesses have had trouble retaining employees during the pandemic and responded by voluntarily raising wages, said Andrea Reay, president of the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce. The proposed initiative could affect thousands of jobs, but up-to-date data is lacking.

Meanwhile, Burien’s City Council also is contemplating a higher minimum.

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“It’s going to be interesting to dive a little deeper and get more information,” Reay said.

Led by the Transit Riders Union, an advocacy organization that works on housing and economic issues in addition to transit, the Tukwila initiative would more than catch the city up with neighboring SeaTac and Seattle.

Currently, Tukwila employers must meet the state’s minimum wage, whereas SeaTac and Seattle employers are covered by city laws established in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The state’s minimum is $14.49 an hour; SeaTac’s for transportation and hospitality workers is $17.54; and Seattle’s is $17.27, with exceptions. Each is adjusted annually for inflation.

The Transit Riders Union decided to target Tukwila partly because it includes Southcenter, general secretary Katie Wilson said. The chain stores and restaurants in and around the mall, plus hotels, are a hub for low-wage jobs. Tukwila also has an Amazon warehouse.

There are equity considerations, too: Tukwila is super diverse, with people of color making up 70% of residents and with 52% speaking a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census data.

“It’s really time for Tukwila to be in alignment,” said Cynthia Delostrinos-Johnson, a Tukwila City Council member endorsing the campaign.

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The proposed initiative would set Tukwila’s minimum wage to approximately match SeaTac’s going forward. But rather than covering only transportation and hospitality workers, it would cover all sectors.

Employers with 15 to 500 employees worldwide would get a phase-in period while those with fewer than 15 employees and grossing less than $2 million annually would be exempt. That clause was added after conversations at spots like a Tukwila food hall for women entrepreneurs who are immigrants and refugees.

Signature-gathering launches Saturday, according to Wilson. To qualify for the ballot, the campaign must submit at least 1,661 valid signatures.

There are precedents for the effort, though the circumstances are different than when unions and activists sought minimum wages in SeaTac (from voters) and Seattle (via legislation). Those campaigns took shape as the region’s tech boom began. Now, variables include COVID recovery and rampant inflation.

“I get social security,” said Carilao, of White Center. “But there are young people on my team, and, to tell you the truth, with the price of food, the price of gas, I don’t know how they’re making it.”

“The Squeeze”

For Koya Mills, making it means three jobs. The Tukwila resident, who rents on the hill above Southcenter with her daughter, works at a restaurant in the mall earning $15.90 an hour and a restaurant in Renton earning less, she said. She also works as a nursing assistant.

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“I work so much, I never get to see the fruits of my labor,” said Mills, 45.

Mills lives close enough to Southcenter that she can walk to work, using a gravel trail that skirts the Interstate 5-Interstate 405 interchange. Her monthly rent has jumped $200 since 2020 and none of her jobs is a reliable source of enough hours, she said.

“You get 30 hours (a week) and you have to hustle up the other 10,” she said. “We call it ‘The Squeeze.'”

Besides setting a higher minimum wage, the Tukwila initiative would require employers to offer available hours to qualified, part-time workers before making additional hires, Wilson said.

Jacob Vigdor, a University of Washington professor who led a study of Seattle’s minimum wage, agrees the initiative would help some workers. He called the impact modest, however, given the scale of the increase and market factors at play.

“I go look at job postings and I’m seeing a lot of numbers that are way above [the statewide minimum wage] … $20 an hour, plus tips and benefits,” Vigdor said, comparing the Tukwila plan to “turning up the heat in August.”

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It’s unclear how long current conditions may last. Washington employment numbers have almost reached pre-COVID levels and are climbing, according to the state’s Employment Security Department.

Of 84 Southcenter workers who spoke to the Transit Riders Union between November and February, most reported making $15 an hour or less.

With respect to hard local data, the picture is hazy, considering ESD hasn’t yet analyzed Tukwila wages for 2021 (COVID made 2020 abnormal).

Of 47,583 jobs, or “wage records,” reported during the fourth quarter of 2019 at Tukwila employers that would be covered by the initiative, 9,369 paid below SeaTac’s minimum wage at the time, according to ESD. With wage records, jobs that switch from one worker to another are counted twice.

Jesus Lopez’s experience sheds some light. He quit his job at a Tukwila fast food restaurant last month to work at a Seattle supermarket, trading $14.49 an hour for more than $18, plus hazard pay, he said.

Finding a better job was relatively easy for Lopez, who lives in Rainier Beach. But the 19-year-old supports the Tukwila initiative, which could help his former co-workers “cover their basic needs.”

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Not everyone can commute to Seattle, noted David West, a policy expert with the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center. Some workers stay in low-wage jobs based on scheduling or child care factors.

Driving to Seattle might not be worth the additional commute time and gas money for Josh Le, said the Auburn resident, who makes under $15 an hour managing a Southcenter candy kiosk and extra cash reselling sneakers online. Wage hikes could lead to some price bumps, but “I see a lot of people struggling” as mall workers, said Le, 26.

The Southside Chamber hasn’t taken a position on the Tukwila campaign. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce offered no comment.

Full-timers at Amazon’s Tukwila warehouse make at least $17.75 an hour and part-timers at least $17.30, according to the company. Southcenter’s parent company, Westfield, and the Washington Retail Association didn’t return requests for comment. Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said the organization’s priority is securing more federal grants to stave off restaurant closures.

In Burien, Councilmember Cydney Moore is among those pushing for a higher minimum wage, she said. A recommendation from the city’s Business and Economic Development Partnership, an advisory group, is due soon. A countywide minimum might make more sense, Vigdor said. King County doesn’t have that authority, Wilson replied.

Abdi Muhumed, who recently opened Dubai Cafeteria on International Boulevard to sell snacks like sambusas, is backing the Tukwila campaign.

“If my customers make more, they can support my business,” he said.

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.