Washington state's top court extends SeaTac's $15 wage to airport workers

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Seattle suburb's $15 hourly minimum wage for certain employees applies to thousands of workers at the region's main airport, Washington state's top court ruled on Thursday.

Voters in the city of SeaTac, where Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is based, approved a 2013 initiative enacting a $15 minimum wage and other benefits for workers in the hospitality and travel industries, but thousands of airport employees were later excluded by court order.

A King County Superior Court judge had ruled that SeaTac did not have the authority to set workplace rules within the airport because the international aviation hub is owned by the Port of Seattle, a separate government entity.

Washington state's Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, on Thursday reversed the trial court's finding, writing that the wage law can be enforced at the airport because "there has been no showing that this law would interfere with airport operations".

The majority also found that federal labor law does not preempt a local provision protecting workers from retaliation.

"4,700 people are celebrating right now, they're getting a huge boost in pay," said Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for the SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs, an appellant in the case. "In their next paycheck they will be paid $15.24 an hour."

Plaintiffs in the SeaTac case were the Washington Restaurant Association, BF Foods, Filo Foods and Alaska Airlines, which has its primary hub at the airport and which in 2005 terminated its roughly 500 unionized ramp workers there, some of whom were rehired as lower-paid nonunion contractors.

Alaska Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a spokeswoman, Bobbie Egan, told the Seattle Times the company respects the views of the state Supreme Court and will "carefully review the full decision as we determine the appropriate next steps."

The Port of Seattle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington state's hourly minimum wage, at $9.47, is the highest among U.S. states, though Rhode Island enacted an increase to $9.60 effective Jan. 1, 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

SeaTac was the first city in the nation to approve a $15 minimum wage. Some 29 states and Washington, D.C. have minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25, according to the conference.

Seattle in April gave certain workers a bump in compensation on a step-by-step path to the $15 hourly wage.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Victoria Cavaliere and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

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