Nov 5 (Reuters) - Voters in a working-class Seattle suburb encompassing the region’s main airport will decide on Tuesday whether to enact one of the country’s highest minimum wages in a ballot measure supporters hope will serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere.
Amid debate about income inequality in America, the ballot initiative in SeaTac, Washington, would mandate that 6,300 workers at Sea-Tac International Airport and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots receive a minimum hourly wage of $15, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. The measure applies only to the travel and hospitality industries and exempts small firms.
Washington state already has a higher minimum wage than the federal government or any other U.S. state, at $9.19 an hour, and the proposed SeaTac wage would be among the nation’s highest, just below a $15.38 rate mandated for city workers and contractors in Sonoma, California.
The wage campaign, funded by labor and community groups, comes during a push for more livable wages for lower-skilled workers that extends far beyond SeaTac, an ethnic hodgepodge of roughly 28,000 people that was incorporated in 1990.
Backers of the wage ordinance see it as an opportunity to help local workers while encouraging other communities - particularly cities with progressive tendencies and smaller voting pools - to take similar action.
“We are not waiting for Congress or corporations to address the fact that people who work hard at their jobs still need public assistance,” said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for the Yes for SeaTac initiative campaign, whose main funders include the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Opponents complain that the measure would slow the region’s economy, and could put the jobs of less skilled workers at risk as the higher wage attracts better qualified applicants.
“This initiative moves money from the left pocket to the right pocket but it doesn’t improve the overall job situation,” said Gary Smith, spokesman for Common Sense SeaTac, the business-backed campaign opposing the measure.
Opponents also note that fewer than 20 percent of the workers covered under the initiative live in SeaTac, leaving city government to police a set of rules that mostly benefit nonresidents.
Both campaigns say the outcome will hinge on how many people vote in the off-year, mail-in election, agreeing that heavy turnout would increase the likelihood of the measure’s passage. There have been no public polls released on the race.
While organized labor hopes SeaTac will act as a catalyst for similar efforts elsewhere, the initiative is not without precedent. Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country’s first so-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governments have followed suit, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Four major California airports operate under ordinances similar to the one under consideration in SeaTac, including one guaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plus health insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airport workers earn $10.91 per hour plus health insurance benefits. (Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)