The United States is full of small towns, towns that you drive through or fly over on your way to one of the larger, more populated cities. SeaTac, Washington, named for the Seattle-Tacoma International airport, is one of these towns. SeaTac is a stopover town, a small inner-ring suburb of the larger and much more well-known Seattle.
It’s about a 25-minute drive from the big city and just about the only noteworthy thing about the town itself is the busy airport surrounded by fast-food restaurants and hotels. As unremarkable as SeaTac seems on the surface, however, its residents have recently initiated a political movement that is about to change everything.
Thousands of people fly into SeaTac Airport every day, but most folks don’t stay long enough to experience anything of the small Washington town it resides in. If you were to drive through SeaTac, you might notice the alternating blue and green signs strewn about the city. They sit on suburban lawns, on billboards, and in shop windows.
These blue and green signs are there for a purpose; they are urging SeaTac residents to come out and vote yes, or vote no in some cases, on Proposition 1. If passed, Prop 1 would raise the minimum wage in the area to an impressive $15 an hour. It’s a familiar number for many who have been following the news for the past few years.
Supporters of Proposition 1 say that $15 an hour represents the same “living wage,” and while this is true, opponents of the proposition argue that the mandatory pay raise would see many businesses close. Employers, unable to afford to pay their workers would have to lay off some of the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the rise.
By the Numbers
$15 an hour would mark a 63% increase above the current minimum wage in place across the state of Washington, $9.19 an hour. It would also be double the federal minimum wage standard of $7.25. As crazy as it sounds, this paltry $9.19 represents the highest minimum wage in the entire country.
Make Ends Meet
There are many people living in Washington who see this potential rise as a godsend, however. Saba Belachew is an Ethiopian immigrant who works two jobs at the SeaTac airport just to make ends meet. She, like so many in her position, is desperate for a wage increase. She plans on voting for Prop 1, but in the meantime, she is also moonlighting at a third job.
Mahananda Ghimirey, a refugee from Bhutan, is facing a similar struggle. He lives in a tiny apartment in Washington with his wife, brother, sister, mother, father, and six-month-old son, Despite being a hard worker and holding a job as a chef at one of SeaTac’s restaurants, Mahananda struggles to both pay the rent and support his family.
Though it’s been a number of years since this was first bandied about, little has changed on a national level. The federal minimum wage ($7.25) has been the same since 2009. This means that people have to support families with only a minimum wage are prone to struggle.
Professor Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, spoke out about this situation in 2013. His position on the matter, like the matter itself, is still relevant today. “Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” he explained to the BBC. Adding that this is all exacerbated by income inequality.
Professor Jacobs also explained that “minimum wages have been stagnant and their real value has been declining for some time.” As an example, those at the top earn even more than they did in the past, but those at the bottom earn even less. The gap is ever-widening and inflation is a very real factor as well.
A full-time worker living on 40 hours and making the federal minimum wage in 2013 earned about $14,500 a year. That wasn’t a lot back then and it put that particular family below the poverty line by quite a bit. Income inequality, what is essentially the widening gap between the rich and poor, is turning SeaTac and much of the country, into a battleground of sorts.
If one looks at the statistics, there are an approximate 10.5 million Americans defined as “working poor.” This means that despite holding at least one full-time job or more, they are still unable to make ends meet without some sort of assistance. It’s a sad statistic and an even more frightening prospect for the middle class, who are slowly slipping down below that poverty line themselves.
Voters a’ Plenty
SeaTac has a population of about 30,000, though only 12,000 of those people are registered, voters. Yet even those who couldn’t vote took a side on this issue. It’s an issue of significant importance to the U.S. economy as a whole, and many of the folks on the opposite side of the fence don’t see a rise in the minimum wage as a solution.
Crippling for Business
Business owners in SeaTac argue that going from $9.19 to $15 overnight would kill their business. Bree Habenicht, who co-owns a Quiznos in Terminal B of the airport, says such an egregious raise would force the franchise to shut its doors. He, of course, agrees that everyone should be entitled to a living wage, but argues that Prop 1 is the wrong way to go about it.
The Wrong Way
Habenicht’s argument against the raise is sound, of course. As a small business owner, he relies on the business to take care of his own family as well. The way he sees it, the problem lies in a broken system and that must be fixed first. He also noted that “We don’t expect anyone at $9.19 an hour making sandwiches to spend 20 years working for us.” But this is rapidly becoming the way things are working for some people in this country.
Anthony Anton, the head of the Washington Restaurant Association, spoke about how young people are entering the service industry at a young age and remain there long term. “People who should be coming into the quick-service industry as their first job are staying in the industry for a lot longer,”
Anton opposes Prop 1 and cites the fact that while teenagers used to make up 30% of restaurant workers in the state, they now make up about 5%. This means that rather than move on or go into another, more lucrative vocation, young people seem to stagnate in these low-income jobs. The promise of higher wages will only increase this trend. But is this a bad thing in the long run?
Compared to Some
Looking at the world as a whole, we can see that there are 11 other countries with a minimum wage higher than $9 an hour. Australia currently has the highest minimum wage in the world, at about $15.52 an hour. France and the UK are close, but not quite there at $12.73 and $10.08, respectively.
There are also several countries, widely seen as friendly places when it comes to labor laws, that do not have set minimum wages. Two examples of this are Sweden and Denmark. Mexico, on the other hand, has the lowest minimum wage in the world at a piddling $0.55 an hour. But is this something that we can change in our country?
Prof Robert Plotnick, a professor at the University of Washington, explained that the idea of such wage increases happening in a place like SeaTac is actually a good thing. He says that the necessary nature of the airport effectively insulates workers from some of the negative impacts of a higher wage. “People aren’t going to stop flying out of SeaTac because it costs a little more to buy a hamburger or a beer.”
Living wage initiatives are happening all over the country and employees are holding 24-hour walkouts as a demonstration, though not much has been done to change the status quo. There’s no doubt that a living wage is necessary to improve socioeconomic standards in our country, but thus far no solution has been viable enough to bring about the requisite change.