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Alaska Airlines’ low-wage contracts harm community


Alaska Airlines has been praised for cutting costs and increasing profits over the past three years, all while maintaining quality customer service and flying its planes on time. What you may not know is that many of the employees responsible for the airline’s record of service do not actually work for Alaska Airlines.

In fact, many of the workers who serve Alaska passengers are among the thousands of poverty-wage workers who are employed not by the airlines or by the airport itself, but by low-bid contractors.

The people who load your bags onto an Alaska flight work for a contractor. When your bags get to you within 20 minutes of your plane parking at the gate — as Alaska guarantees — that work is actually performed by contract workers who are paid wages starting at $9.25 an hour.

The people who fuel the aircraft do hard work that requires skill and precision. Alaska has received kudos for having these workers pump biodiesel into their planes. But they, too, are paid poverty wages by a low-bid contractor.

It’s the same story with skycaps and wheelchair attendants (minimum wage, or $9.04 per hour, plus tips) and the workers who clean the cabins (pay range starts at minimum wage). Over the years, Alaska and many other airlines have chosen to contract out this work to the lowest bidder, with devastating impact on communities like mine.

As a SeaTac City Council member, I can see the impact of this poverty-wage airport economy every day. When so many people struggle to provide their families with life’s basic needs, our neighborhoods suffer. Kids struggle to thrive in school. And South King County communities like mine struggle to build strong local economies without a solid base of living-wage jobs.

I have met with many airport workers, most recently at a community forum sponsored by Puget Sound Sage and Working Washington. These workers are my neighbors, friends and constituents. They are taxpayers who want to contribute to our economy. Some are immigrants and refugees from around the world who came here seeking opportunities for a better life. Many work multiple jobs. And almost none has access to health care outside of community health clinics and local emergency rooms.

It doesn’t have to work this way. Instead of a low-bid economic model, Alaska Airlines and our publicly owned airport can adopt a first-class model that raises standards and creates good jobs that measure up to the cost of living.

Several West Coast airports have already taken steps in this direction. So while the contract employee loading bags at Sea-Tac gets paid barely above minimum wage, the contract employee unloading bags at LAX earns $10.42 an hour with benefits, $14.97 without. It can be the same airline, the same plane, the same flight, even the same bag. Our community should not allow this kind of inequity.

Every worker at our airport deserves to be paid a living wage.

Getting a raise doesn’t solve every problem — to truly thrive, workers also need good benefits, job security and the right to work together for better conditions. But the example of LAX shows that airlines can still operate successfully while offering a better standard of living to everyone who serves their passengers. This is not rocket science.

I recognize that Alaska is not the only airline to pursue a low-bid-contractor approach. But it is the dominant force at Sea-Tac, representing more than half the flights at our airport and earning record profits in recent years.

Alaska is also our hometown airline, and I’m proud of its many accomplishments. But the company’s leadership needs to do the right thing: align its contracting practices with their strong community values.

Doing that would truly make Alaska a company we can all be proud of.

Mia Gregerson is deputy mayor of the city of SeaTac. This column originally appeared in the Seattle Times and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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