How Raising The Minimum Wage To $15 Changed These Workers' Lives

04/22/2015 07:33 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015
Working Washington

SEATAC, Wash. -- In late 2013, voters in this airport town outside Seattle narrowly approved a groundbreaking measure setting a minimum wage of $15 per hour for certain workers. When the new law went into effect last year, Sammi Babakrkhil got a whopping 57 percent raise.

A valet attendant and shuttle driver at a parking company called MasterPark, Babakrkhil saw his base wage jump from $9.55 per hour, before tips, up to $15. Having scraped by in America since immigrating from Afghanistan 11 years ago, he suddenly faced the pleasant predicament as his co-workers: What to do with the windfall?

For the overworked father of three, it wasn't a hard question. Babakrkhil decided to quit his other full-time job driving shuttles at a hotel down the road. Though he'd take home less money overall, the pay hike at MasterPark would allow him to work 40 hours a week instead of a brutal 80 -- and to actually spend time with his wife and three young girls.

"My kids used to not see me," said Babakrkhil, who notes that the new work arrangement has also afforded him time to start exercising. "Now I make a little bit less, but I'm enjoying my life ... I'm happy this way."

Babakrkhil's colleague Deyo Hirata, who also received a considerable raise, said he now frets less about making ends meet. Though he has always taken pride in his job and maintained a good relationship with his managers, he says the wage hike has made him feel better rewarded for his labor. Nobody will get rich earning $15 per hour in an area as expensive as greater Seattle, but for the first time now, Hirata is seeing the possibility of savings.

"Money is always a hassle, but it has taken whatever subtle pressures off," Hirata said of the wage increase. "It's changed my attitude about struggling. It's less stress in your life, bottom line."

Raising the minimum wage is a popular idea right now. Though the federal minimum wage hasn't moved since 2009, cities and states throughout the country have passed minimum wage hikes in recent years, bringing raises to millions of service workers like Babakrkhil and Hirata. Thanks to a handful of state ballot initiatives approved in November, for the first time ever a majority of states now have minimum wages higher than the federal level of $7.25.

But nowhere have the raises been so vast and sudden as in SeaTac, a small city at the forefront of what's become known as the Fight for $15 labor movement. Funded by the Service Employees International Union, Fight for $15 has held a series of high-profile worker strikes in cities around the country over the past three years. Though the strikes and protests started with fast food workers, they have grown to include home and child care workers, and even adjunct professors.

The passage of SeaTac’s minimum wage ballot initiative, which SEIU helped to fund, marked the first concrete policy win for the national Fight for $15 movement. The SeaTac victory was also instrumental in bringing a $15 minimum wage to the much larger city of Seattle: Once it became clear that voters in nearby SeaTac weren't afraid to pass such an aggressive wage hike, Seattle businesses joined with city officials and labor leaders to hash out a minimum wage law that employers would find palatable. A deal was reached just months after SeaTac voters approved their proposal, and Seattle's city council passed it into law in June 2014. However, unlike in SeaTac, where the wage was raised immediately, Seattle businesses will be eased into a $15 minimum wage over a multi-year phase-in period.

SeaTac and Seattle were likely the most visible victories in the ambitious push for $15, which has drawn strong opposition from business groups. But the successes in those cities undoubtedly helped progressives pass more modest wage hikes around the country, in addition to influencing the debate over income inequality on Capitol Hill. Although Congress is no closer to reaching a deal to raise the minimum wage -- Republicans have steadfastly opposed a hike in recent sessions -- Democrats are now considering raising their initial wage proposal, from $10.10 to $12.

Significant as it is, however, the SeaTac minimum wage law only applies to a sliver of the city’s workers -- for now. To make it politically feasible, the measure was tailored to apply to transportation and hospitality workers at large businesses tied to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, rather than to all private employers within the city. Among those exempted from the law: free-standing restaurants not tied to hotels; unionized hotels that already have a collective bargaining agreement with workers; hotels with fewer than 30 employees or 100 guest rooms; and "park and fly" lots with fewer than 100 parking spaces or 25 employees.

And most importantly, the minimum wage -- which ticked up to $15.24 on Jan. 1, because it’s pegged to inflation -- doesn't yet apply at the actual airport. After SeaTac’s ballot initiative passed, several businesses, led by Alaska Airlines, banded together and sued to stop the minimum wage from going into effect. The law was upheld for companies like MasterPark, but a King County Superior Court judge ruled that the city did not have the authority to set a wage floor at the airport itself, since it is owned by the Port of Seattle.

With that case waiting on an appeals ruling, thousands of workers employed at the airport can still legally earn below $15 per hour. The ruling, expected any week now, will determine whether or not the law will apply to those workers.

Puget Sound Sage, an advocacy group that backs the minimum wage law, estimates that more than 6,000 additional workers would be covered if the law is upheld for the airport. City Clerk Kristina Gregg told The Huffington Post that SeaTac does not track how many workers the law currently covers, but the Puget Sound Business Journal estimated that 1,100 workers received raises under the law last year.

The drivers and attendants at MasterPark feel fortunate to fall under the law. MasterPark's owners, less so.

The company operates five lots near the airport, parking travelers' cars and ferrying them to and from the terminals. Because valet parking is labor-intensive, MasterPark fell within the minimum wage law even while many automated self-parking lots near the airport did not. The company opposed the SeaTac proposal when it was being considered. Once the initiative passed, MasterPark instituted a 99-cent daily fee on top of its typical $14.95 daily parking rate. The fee, dubbed a "living wage" surcharge, is meant to absorb additional labor costs, which the company estimated at $1.4 million a year.

Jed Goniu, president of MasterPark, said he doesn't have a problem with a $15 minimum wage per se. He just wishes the law had been applied more equitably and in steps.

"We're not against a $15 minimum wage if it encompasses everybody," Goniu said. "If we're on the same playing field, with the same rules, then it's easier to compete."

But despite its own opposition to the law and the legal objections being raised by other businesses, MasterPark management made a promise to its employees after the proposal passed: Once workers started receiving a $15 wage, it wouldn't be taken away from them, even if the law crumbled in court or was repealed. The rationale was that no worker’s wages should ever be reduced.

In interviews with HuffPost, several employees said they appreciated the way MasterPark accepted a law with which it clearly wasn't thrilled.

"That's why I've worked here for nine years -- they treat us good," said Babakrkhil. (It’s worth noting that although Goniu has issues with the law, when a Huffington Post reporter showed up unannounced at his office, the company president graciously allowed the reporter to interview employees in private on company grounds.)

Not all workers have felt that their employers were as cooperative, however. Last year, three workers filed a lawsuit against Cedarbrook Lodge, claiming the hotel didn’t pay them $15 per hour and their full tips as required by the law. The lodge’s parent company denied the allegations. (A general manager at Cedarbrook had previously said he would close some of the hotel's rooms to avoid falling under the purview of the minimum wage ordinance.) Another company, a parking outfit called Extra Car, was sued by a former employee who claimed she was paid $10.32 per hour when she should have been receiving $15.

Then there are the thousands of workers at the airport who aren't covered by the law and may never be, depending on the outcome of the pending appeal. One of those workers, Michael Church, said there's a misconception that the SeaTac minimum wage applies throughout the city. Church works at the airport as a ramp agent, or "ramper," as the job is known colloquially, for an airline subcontractor called Menzies Aviation.

"It's really frustrating," Church, who has become a Fight for $15 activist, said of the litigation. "There's a lot of anticipation [among airport workers] about it."

Church, 31, makes $9.50 per hour preparing ramps for airlines such as Iceland Air, Sun Country, Virgin America, British Airways and JetBlue. Unable to afford his own apartment, he currently lives at his grandmother's house and commutes two hours each way on public transit. Church said he already knows what he would do with the extra money he would make under a $15 minimum wage.

"What I would do is I would go and get my own place," said Church. "I would be caught up on all my bills. I wouldn't be struggling to figure out how am I going to pay this."

If MasterPark is any indication, SeaTac businesses will find a way to live with the wage increase, even if it means passing some costs off onto consumers. (After the law had spent a year on the books, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported that the once-contentious measure had become a "shoulder shrug" around town.) With the airport expected to expand its capacity in the coming years, the city has only seen its hospitality sector grow since the law was passed, according to City Manager Todd Cutts, who pointed to the increased number of permits being issued for hotels. Although the city doesn't survey businesses to see if the law has stifled business growth, he said, it doesn't appear that economic disaster has ensued.

"We certainly have seen planned growth here in the community," Cutts said.

The SeaTac wage floor also brought a raise to Ashley Young, a cashier at MasterPark. Young, 27, said her hourly wage has risen by more than $3 since the law went into effect.

Asked whether the change has affected her life in any meaningful way, Young said that she's once again playing competitive softball, a favorite pastime. She had to give up the sport under her previous pay because she couldn't afford the travel costs.

"The old wage I was making before, it was kind of a struggle," Young said. "Now I'm allowed to have a little bit of fun, and a life."

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