Controversial ad campaign claims Sea-Tac workers are paid poverty wages

The Central Terminal at SeaTac International Airport. (Photo by cnewtoncom via Flickr)

As your plane lifts off from Sea-Tac, you might be fantasizing about the sunny vacation destination that awaits, or preparing for the big business meeting on the other end of your flight.

You’re probably not thinking about the thousands of employees who helped get you in the air, but stayed behind back at the airport.

But according to a new ad campaign by labor advocacy group Working Washington, at least 4,000 of those employees earn what they call “poverty wages”.

Spokesperson Jonathan Rosenblum says the campaign is meant to educate the public about integral airport employees who his organization says deserve better treatment and better pay.

Earlier this month the pro-union coalition filed a lawsuit against Sound Transit after the agency refused to display the ads on the Sea-Tac light rail.

The Working Washington campaign ad rejected by Sound Transit.

Sound Transit rejected the ads on the basis that they were political advocacy and thus violated the company’s ad policy.

The campaign is specifically targeting jobs including fueling and baggage handling. These employees don’t work for the airport itself, but for companies that contract specific services to individual airlines.

And while the Port of Seattle owns and operates SeaTac Airport, a federal court directive restricts the government body from overseeing contracts between service companies and the airlines that hire them. According to Airport Media Officer Perry Cooper, contract details, including wage rates, are left in the hands of airlines.

That means that contracts are often awarded to the lowest bidder, and the employees that provide cleaning, fueling and luggage services are paid low wages with little room for raises, says Rosenblum.

All kinds of people have these jobs, but Sea-Tac is a hub of employment for immigrants and refugees who relocate to the Seattle area in search of new beginnings. Airport Jobs, a non-profit that links job seekers to airport employers, estimates that about 9,000 resettled refugees and newly arrived immigrants are currently employed at the airport.

As of last January, Washington State boasts the highest minimum wage in the county ($9.04). But a study published by Alliance for a Just Society shows that a single adult in Washington must earn over $15 an hour in order to make a living wage, which they define as an income that requires no public assistance and allows for some capacity to deal with emergencies.

“Baggage handlers start at about $9.25 per hour and plane fuelers at about $10.00 per hour,” Rosenblum said. “Workers are offered family health care, but they have to pay about $300 per month for it, so their families go without health coverage.”

He says airlines have ultimate control of wages and working conditions and they could do more to demand that contractors give their employees better pay and benefit options. The aim of the ad campaign is to pressure major airlines at SeaTac to spearhead a change.

Representatives of Alaska Airlines, the largest carrier at the airport, declined requests for comment. But the company’s CEO declared in the most recent annual shareholder’s report that “2011 was a stellar year” and Alaska reported record profits of almost $300 million.

With business booming like that, it may be hard to convince critics like Working Washington that Sea-Tac contract employees don’t deserve a raise.


Allison Barrett is a journalism student at the University of Washington and a former intern for the Common Language Project. Her work has been published by the Seattle Times, Next Door Media, Northwest Asian Weekly and several other local news organizations.