POLITICS
11/08/2013 04:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2013

SeaTac $15 Minimum Wage Squeaking By In Early Returns, But Vote Count Could Last Days

Three days after residents in SeaTac, Wash., voted on a ballot measure that would create the highest minimum wage in the nation by far, the results remain too close to call.

Supporters of Proposition No. 1, which calls for a $15 minimum wage, led 51.58 to 48.42 percent after the latest vote tally was finished on Thursday night, according to King County Elections. That signals a declining lead for the wage measure's backers, who enjoyed a roughly 8 percentage point lead after the initial count on Tuesday.

Due to the high number of mail-in ballots, vote counting is expected to continue for days and the results won't be ratified until Nov. 26, according to the city clerk's office. So far, 4,469 ballots have been counted in a vote that was open to 12,108 registered voters.

If supporters manage to cling to their narrow lead, the measure's passage would hand a major victory to labor activists. Proposition 1 would establish a wage floor that's more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The $15 benchmark, which would be adjusted each year according to inflation, would apply to an estimated 6,000 airport and hotel workers employed by large businesses in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

"The workers at the airport work hard but don't get what they deserve," said Abdirahman Abdullahi, an employee of the airport's Hertz rental car location, who took a leave of absence to stump for the ballot measure. "They're juggling two or three jobs just to pay the bills, let alone to save money. This initiative ... it's going to improve their lives."

In addition to the wage-floor hike, Proposition 1 includes a sick-leave mandate, letting workers accrue up to 6.5 sick days a year, as well as a guarantee that tipped workers can keep their gratuities and not be required to share them. Smaller businesses were carved out of the legislation to make it more palatable.

Even though it would pertain only to a particular set of workers in a city of 27,000, the measure has drawn national attention at a time when Congress is considering raising the federal minimum wage and fast-food workers are going on strike over stagnant, sub-$10-per-hour pay. On Tuesday, New Jersey residents voted to raise their minimum wage to $8.25, and on Thursday night President Barack Obama threw his support behind congressional Democrats' proposal to raise the federal level to $10.10 and peg it to inflation.

With SeaTac held up as a bellwether vote on similar measures, businesses and unions dug in and spent an estimated $2 million -- much of it in out-of-state money -- to sway voters. Among the initiative's largest backers was the Service Employees International Union, which for years has organized workers at airports around the country.

Debate fell along the typical battle lines of any minimum wage proposal: The business community argued that the higher wage floor would force concessionaires to raise prices or go out of business, while organized labor and progressive activists said it would improve the lives of thousands of service workers.

Many states have their own minimum wages that they set higher than the federal level, including Washington State, which boasts the highest state wage floor in the nation, at $9.19. Certain cities and counties that lean left have decided that the state and federal levels are inadequate and established their own, such as San Francisco, where the minimum wage is $10.55.

But so far, no minimum wage -- federal, state or local -- has come close to SeaTac's $15 proposal.

Abdullahi, who has worked at Hertz since 2007, argued that the SeaTac measure is ultimately about economic fairness. Like other airports that now function practically as shopping malls, business has been booming at SeaTac, and he said it's time service workers shared in some of those profits.

"The corporations, they're making money," Abdullahi said. "The workers, they're the ones doing the work."

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