In November, the voters of Sea-Tac approved a ballot measure that would have raised the local hourly wage to $15 an hour. This past Friday, in response to a lawsuit backed by the airlines and the restaurant industry, the King County Superior Court ruled that the measure could only apply to the 1,600 people who work at hotels and car services outside the airport. That cuts out 4,700 people who work within the airport itself, which is technically a separate jurisdiction belonging to the Port of Seattle and is not subject to the voters’ desires.
Working at Sea-Tac wasn’t always quite such a hard way to make a living. Just ask Ahmed Jama, 26, who says he started in fast food restaurants there since he was 16.
Like most workers at the airport, he holds multiple jobs, since most employers don’t give anybody full-time work (to say nothing of health benefits — Jama says he declared bankruptcy when he was 20 years old because of medical bills for a heart condition). So for about 30 hours a week, he’s a dispatcher for the aviation services firm Huntleigh USA, which means he coordinates dozens of wheelchair pushers who arrive to meet disabled people at their gates. After 10 years, he still makes $10.05 an hour, and feels like he’s going backwards — he wants to go to school to become a medical technician, but working 60 hours a week doesn’t leave time for class.
Here’s what happened to make planning for the future impossible: The airlines have contracted out more and more of the jobs for which they used to pay people decent salaries with benefits. While Alaska Airlines employees overall make an average of $73,500 per year, those of the airlines’ contractors make an estimated $20,176.
“That’s the new hustle, subcontract everything. Cut the salary, cut the benefits, and CEO pay goes up,” Jama says, taking a break from his spreadsheets and walkie-talkie in SeaTac’s airy welcome lobby. “And you see all these companies come underbid each other. So companies that used to pay vacation pay, or parking, a new company will come in and say ‘we don’t pay anybody anything, give me the contract.’ And they’ll get the contract, and it’s a steep decline in working conditions and morale. Each company is just out doing the bare minimum.”