Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Legal Challenge Could Stymie SeaTac Minimum Wage Hike

Elaine Thompson
Associated Press
In this Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 photo, wheelchair attendants Erick Conley, left, and Sesilia Vaitele assist a pair of passengers heading to an overseas flight at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, in SeaTac, Wash.

Workers at Sea-Tac International Airport are still not sure whether they’ll get a wage bump to $15 per hour come January. With SeaTac’s Proposition 1 still passing by a narrow margin, Alaska Airlines and other business interests are challenging the measure in court.

Alaska Airlines, the Washington Restaurant Association and a small business owner at the airport have been trying since July to block the minimum wage initiative in court. They’ve tried to keep the measure off the ballot and failed.

Now the issue is which court should hear the case. The business interests would like a King County judge to rule the initiative unconstitutional. But sponsors of the initiative, who are backed by unions like the Service Employees International Union, said the case should be heard in federal court.

Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for the initiative sponsors, said Alaska Airlines and the other plaintiffs should honor the vote results.

"Now these corporations that have floor after floor, after floor of lawyers are going to spend a lot of money and a lot of time fighting this, and I think it’s an enormous tragedy," she said. 

Alaska Airlines spokesman Paul McElroy said the company acknowledges there’s a legitimate debate about whether the minimum wage is adequate. But, he said, this measure is the wrong approach as it raises pay only for transportation and hospitality workers, and not for all workers.

McElroy added the airline might be hurt if it has to raise fares because its contractors have to pay higher wages.

"Presumably those vendors would pass their costs along to us, and like any business, the way we price our product, our tickets, is affected by our costs," he said. 

McElroy said there are a number of reasons why the company thinks the measure conflicts with state law. 

"One of those would be that it's a citizens' initiative that covers more than one subject, that the title of the initiative does not adequately explain all of the elements of the initiative, and then there's the question of whether the city of SeaTac has the legal authority to impose business requirements on businesses that operate within Seattle-Tacoma International Airport," McElroy said. 

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman is expected to decide by Nov. 26 whether the case will stay in her court or be sent back to state court. Either way, an attorney for the initiative sponsors said this issue will be litigated for a long time. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.