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

Washington Supreme Court Rules That $15 Minimum Wage Applies At Sea-Tac Airport

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
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.

In a long anticipated decision, the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled the $15-an-hour minimum wage law narrowly approved by voters in the city of SeaTac in fall 2013 applies at Sea-Tac International Airport.

The court's 5-4 decision means that about 4,700 workers ranging from restaurant employees to baggage handlers should now be paid $15.24 an hour.

“Luckily and thankfully, justice was made and it was approved, so I’m pretty excited,” said Socrates Bravo, 26, who works for Menzies Aviation loading luggage.

Bravo said he earns $12 an hour and often works 60-hour weeks to earn enough to help provide for his two-year-old daughter. He took a leading role in the minimum wage movement. Last November, he was arrested along with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant outside Alaska Airlines’ corporate headquarters in SeaTac. They were protesting the airline’s legal effort to block the $15 minimum wage from taking effect at the airport.

Alaska Airlines' Response

Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said in a statement that the company respects the views of the state Supreme Court and will “carefully review the full decision as we determine the appropriate next steps.”

She pointed out that Alaska Airlines raised wages in April 2014 for more than 1,000 workers employed by the airline’s contractors at the airport. That raised the entry-level wage for those vendor employees to $12 an hour.

The workers at Sea-Tac will now be owed back pay dating back to Jan. 1, 2014, according to Dmitri Iglitzin, an attorney for SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs, the union-backed group that led the effort to pass the minimum-wage initiative. Bravo said that in March he calculated his back pay totaled $6,000 to $7,000, so now it’s even more that Menzies will owe him.

One of the issues in the case revolved around whether the city had jurisdiction over a "special purpose district" such as the Port of Seattle, which operates the airport. The port and Alaska Airlines argued that state law gives the port "exclusive jurisdiction," meaning that local wage ordinances set by a municipality wouldn't apply there. 

Who Sets Laws At The Airport?

But the majority opinion said the law is ambiguous. It does deny the city of SeaTac some authority over the port, but not all authority. "The legislature expressly instructed that the purpose of the statutory scheme is to ensure uniformity in the laws regarding aeronautics," the justices wrote.

Iglitzin said that means the port has jurisdiction over aviation, but laws of “general application” such as minimum-wage laws and anti-discrimination laws created by a city should also apply to the airport if it’s within the municipality.

“Telling a Starbucks what wages it has to pay to a barista does not have anything to do with airport operations and the state supreme court has quite wisely acknowledged that,” Iglitzin said.

The small city of SeaTac, which has a population of about 28,000, landed in the national spotlight in 2013 when unions such as the Services Employees International Union poured money into the effort to pass the $15-an-hour wage for hospitality and transportation workers.

SeaTac On The National Stage

That measure passed by just 77 votes. The wage went into effect at the beginning of 2014 for workers at hotels and parking lots above a certain size, but workers at the airport did not get the raise because a superior court judge ruled that the law didn’t apply there.

Charlotte Garden, associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, said SeaTac played an important role in setting the stage for a wave of minimum wage hikes across the country.

“SeaTac’s adoption of the minimum wage suggested, yeah, this is really possible, this is a political reality that led to cities like Seattle and Los Angeles adopting their own minimum wage hikes,” Garden said.

Read the court's ruling and dissent here.

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.