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Voter-approved $15 minimum wage law in Seattle suburb faces legal challenge

By Jonathan Kaminsky

OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - A judge on Friday will hear a legal challenge to the voter-approved initiative enacting a $15 minimum wage for travel and hospitality sector workers in a Seattle suburb that is home to the region's main international airport.

King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas, who in August ruled the measure struck from the ballot in a decision subsequently overturned on appeal, is expected to issue a ruling on the case immediately following oral arguments.

The measure applies only in the city of SeaTac and mandates that some 6,300 workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots receive a minimum hourly wage more than double the federal minimum rate of $7.25. Its supporters said they believe Darvas will rule against them.

But they say the case will likely be decided by the Washington Supreme Court.

"Municipalities absolutely have the right to raise the minimum wage," said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for the union-backed Yes for SeaTac campaign. "Otherwise you're saying that airports are rights-free zones."

Plaintiffs in the case, led by Alaska Airlines, have challenged the legality of the ballot measure, known as Proposition 1, on multiple grounds.

"We all recognize inequality is an issue, however raising the minimum wage to the highest in the nation for only select entry-level workers and mandating other restrictions on employers violates many state and federal laws," said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan.

Chief among their arguments is that the city of SeaTac, a community of 28,000 residents, does not have the authority to set work rules for the airport, which is owned by the Port of Seattle, a separate government entity.

Bill Sherman, an assistant professor at the Seattle University law school who studied the case, said the plantiffs' assertion that the airport is "a legal island unto itself" is not fully settled by existing state statutes and case law.

Washington state's hourly minimum wage is already higher than any in other U.S. state, and will rise by 13 cents to $9.32 an hour in January. The new wage in the city of SeaTac would be among the nation's highest, just below a $15.38 rate mandated for city workers and contractors in Sonoma, California.

The measure won by a margin of 77 votes in November with about 6,000 ballots cast, with a manual recount completed on Monday upholding the result. It is set to take effect on January 1.

Opponents warn the measure will slow the region's economy and drive businesses away.

The measure covers workers in the local travel and hospitality industries and provides sick leave in addition to a higher wage floor. It exempts small firms, airlines and unionized work forces.

The initiative is not without precedent.

Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country's first so-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governments have followed suit, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Four major California airports operate under ordinances similar to the SeaTac measure, including one guaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plus health insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airport workers earn $10.91 per hour plus health benefits.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Grebler)

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