By Maria L. La Ganga
At first, the Rev. Jan Bolerjack couldn't figure out why the line at her church's food pantry was studded with men and women in what she described as "airline gear," uniforms they wore as baggage handlers and ramp workers at nearby Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
"It confused me," she recounted recently. "Why were these people working full time at the airport and standing in line for food?"
Bolerjack became pastor at Riverton Park United Methodist Church in 2007, two years after Alaska Airlines contracted out an estimated 500 jobs for baggage handlers, whose wages were slashed from an average of $13.41 an hour to a starting wage of $8.75.
That shift by the major airline at the busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest set the stage for Proposition 1.
The measure, on the Tuesday ballot in this working-class enclave south of Seattle, would raise the minimum wage for certain airport and hotel workers to $15 an hour and guarantee them sick leave. About 6,300 employees at an estimated 70 businesses would be affected.
SeaTac has become the latest battleground over "living wages" and income inequality, a fight being played out in fast-food restaurants and airport terminals nationwide and pitting organized labor against the airline and hospitality industries.
Although only about 12,000 residents are registered to vote here, campaign donations have poured in on both sides of the hard-fought measure. By Friday more than $1.9 million in cash and in-kind services had been raised, or about $160 per registered voter. Supporters have outraised opponents by nearly 2 to 1.
If passed, Proposition 1 would bring the airport in line with California's major aviation hubs, which have set pay rates above state and federal minimums. The living wage ordinance at Los Angeles International Airport, for example, guarantees $15.67 an hour for covered workers who do not get health benefits and $10.91 for those who do.
"West Coast airports have been leaders in addressing the issues of low pay and high turnover in our airports," said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. He argues that low pay "has impacts on the airports themselves in terms of turnover and quality of performance that affect safety and security."
In a detailed study of airport worker wages nationwide released Monday, the Berkeley center found that the outsourcing of baggage worker jobs, for example, more than tripled in the last 10 years, and pay for all porters during the same period dropped by nearly half, from more than $19 an hour in 2012 dollars to $10.60.
Fully 37 percent of cleaning and baggage workers at airports live in or near poverty, said the report, financed by the Service Employees International Union.
"Because of low wages and benefits, a similar share of these workers and their families must rely on public benefit programs to make ends meet," the report said.
But Mike West, co-chairman of Common Sense SeaTac, which opposes Proposition 1, warned that raising the minimum wage would hurt entry-level workers in his hometown, where many new immigrants do not speak English and one neighborhood along gritty International Boulevard is nicknamed "Little Mogadishu."
West, who recently retired, owned an auto body shop called Southtowne Auto Rebuild for four decades. Through the years West hired numerous entry-level workers at minimum wage, employees he could not have afforded, he said, if he had had to pay them the equivalent of $15 an hour.
On Friday, West was driving his red pickup past dueling Proposition 1 billboards and signs, when the driver in the next lane honked and waved. At the wheel was a smiling James Heidelberg. West hired him in the 1990s.
"There's a kid I took on who couldn't get to work at 8 a.m.," West recounted fondly. "He took the bus. He'd show up at 10. I 'put up' with him for 15 years. He was a detailer. We trained him. ... I was taking a tax receiver and changing him into a taxpayer."
Common Sense SeaTac points to a recent study by the business-friendly Washington Research Council, which estimated that the ballot measure would kill 5 percent of the city's low-wage jobs and that an additional 5 percent to 10 percent of affected workers "would be replaced by more experienced and educated employees."
But Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for Yes! For SeaTac, discounted the report as "scare tactics" and said Proposition 1's aim was "to help people who work for a living make a living."
Airport concession workers such as Roxan Seibel are among those who would benefit. Seibel is a single mother who has worked at the airport for 30 years, raising two adopted daughters, one of them a child with serious medical needs.
When the girl, born with fetal alcohol effects, would get sick or break her feeding tube, Seibel said, she had to take unpaid time off to care for her.
Seibel said she had not taken a single sick day for herself. She feared the consequences and loss of pay.
"I have come to work sick," she said. "I have thrown up in garbage cans. I am not the only one. ... I feel that everybody that works should have paid sick time."
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