Washington City Moves Toward Nation’s Highest Minimum Wage, Other Perks

Published July 22, 2013

The city of SeaTac, Wash., might boast the nation’s highest minimum wage if voters pass an initiative this November.

The SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs contends it has collected the necessary number of petition signatures—more than 2,000 signatures, or more than 15 percent of the city’s voting population—to put on the ballot a measure asking establishment of a $15 an hour minimum wage. It would apply only to hospitality and transportation employees of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and nearby hotels and car-rental firms.

The initiative defines a hospitality employer as any hotel that has more than 100 rooms and more than 30 employees. The initiative also applies to food services within hotels and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The “Ordinance Setting Minimum Employment Standards for Hospitality and Transportation Industry Employers” entails more than a new minimum wage, however. In addition to a 60 percent wage increase, minimum-wage employees who fall under the initiative would enjoy a revised paid sick leave policy, among several other benefits. For every 40 hours worked, one hour of paid time off would be earned. At the end of the year, whatever unused sick days remain would be paid to the employee in cash.

‘Qualified Displaced Worker’ Preferences

If an employer leaves or is replaced, the new employer would have to keep a “Qualified Displaced Worker List” of employees from the previous company. If the new employer does any hiring, employees of the former company would have to be offered a work period of 90 days. The initiative also mandates that existing part-time employees be offered openings in full-time positions before job offers are extended to outside hires.

If the initiative passes, SeaTac’s airport workers will have the highest minimum wage in the country. San Francisco currently holds the nation’s highest minimum wage of $10.55 an hour for all workers. SeaTac would also be the first city in Washington State to deviate from the state minimum wage of $9.19, the highest state minimum wage in the country.

In addition, a Port of Seattle policy bars airport vendors from pricing their products and services higher than what they charge at locations away from the airport, even though they would have to pay substantially higher wages at the airport.

Working Washington, an arm of the Service Employees International Union, has led the charge on the measure. Local businesses have been leading the counterattack.

Multi-Pronged Proposal

On July 7, Alaska Airlines, Filo Foods, BF Foods, and the Washington Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit challenging the initiative’s validity. The four plaintiffs argue the initiative addresses too many topics, has an insufficient number of legal signatures on the petitions backing it, and conflicts with several federal laws. Therefore, it has not crossed the legal threshold to be on the November election ballots, the lawsuit argues.

Under Washington State law, citizen ballot measures are limited to addressing one topic. As it currently stands, the initiative contains provisions covering multiple issues such as a new mandated wage, a new paid sick leave policy, imposed employment restrictions, tip regulation, and recordkeeping accountability.

The initiative’s supporters needed to collect 1,541 valid signatures to place the measure on the November ballots. They turned in 2,283 signatures. However, King County election officials rejected 668 of them; the plaintiffs found an additional 200 signatures they say did not meet legal requirements. If their challenges to the signatures are upheld, the measure would have only 1,415 legal signatures, too few to put it on the November ballots.

In a statement released by Alaska Airlines, the plaintiffs argue the initiative conflicts with “provisions of the Railway Labor Act, the National Labor Relations Act and the Airline Deregulation Act,” which govern airline and ground services and would supersede the measure.

The SeaTac City Council on July 23 voted unanimously to put the measure on the November ballots.