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Originally published Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 8:22 PM

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Port using caution regarding wage hike

The Port of Seattle Commission is approaching the $15 minimum-wage issue cautiously, despite political pressure to enforce higher wages at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Port of Seattle Commission is coming late to the political debate over Seattle-Tacoma International Airport minimum wages, and its first meeting on the topic seemed to further alienate wage activists.

Last month, the commission announced it would explore its role in raising the minimum wage for 15,000 employees who work at the airport. SeaTac voters approved a measure in November raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for airport-related businesses, but a King County Superior Court judge ruled the city didn’t have jurisdiction to force higher wages at the airport.

An appeal is pending, and it’s still not clear whether the Port can force higher wages at Sea-Tac Airport, either. Or whether it wants to.

Proposition 1’s passage in SeaTac changed few paychecks, but the election results lit a political fire that is spreading across the region. In many ways, the debate about airport wages has become a sideshow to the bigger movement to raise the minimum wage in Seattle and other places.

That momentum means the commission is under significant political pressure to act.

More than 50 elected leaders in King County urged commissioners in a letter this week to sign an agreement with the city of SeaTac to enforce Proposition 1 at the airport.

“The Port leadership’s position on this matter is harming workers and their families, who expected and were entitled to the improvements in working conditions that voters approved,” the letter read. “The Port’s position undermines the trust that voters put in you.”

The Port says a more thoughtful approach is in order.

During a meeting Tuesday afternoon, the five commissioners heard from Airport Director Mark Reis, small-business owners and employees about how a higher minimum wage might affect them.

Co-president Courtney Gregoire said the commission will consider not just wages, but job development and training, and how else the Port can support workers at the airport.

Proponents of a higher minimum wage have been turning out in force to protest the Port’s position, but they skipped Tuesday’s meeting. Proposition 1 campaign spokeswoman Heather Weiner called it “a puppet show.”

“They are tone deaf right now,” she said of Port commissioners. “The voters have spoken. Airport workers have spoken. Their peers have spoken.”

Port commissioners voiced legal concerns about jurisdiction and worries about the viability of small businesses at the airport. Business owners testified that they would lose contracts and have to lay off employees if they were forced to pay higher wages. Those are the same arguments they made on the campaign trail last year.

But airport businesses have another chance to stop the requirement, and they are hoping the Port commission will buy them some time, at least.

“We are all in agreement that a living wage is important,” said Kathleen Taylor, whose Dilettante chocolate bar sells mochas and truffles at the airport. But she urged the Port commission to take time to find “a rational definition” for that, and said she likes the commission’s current approach.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter

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