Washington Supreme Court applies SeaTac's minimum wage to airport workers

Filo Foods, LLC v. City of SeaTac, No. 89723-9 (Aug. 20, 2015).

SeaTac Airport (Credit: Nicholas Wang / flickr)

SeaTac Airport (Credit: Nicholas Wang / flickr)

The voters of the City of SeaTac, which surrounds the SeaTac International Airport, approved a ballot proposition that increased SeaTac’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

A unanimous Washington Supreme Court decides that the new minimum wage is valid as applied to the City of SeaTac itself. It doesn’t violate state or federal statutory law and doesn’t offend the negative commerce clause. 

The court divides 5-4, however, on whether the minimum wage can apply to workers at SeaTac Airport. SeaTac Airport is operated by the Port of Seattle. The Port does not currently enforce a $15 minimum wage, although within two years the Port minimum wage will be $15.50. A state statute provides that the Airport “shall … be under the exclusive jurisdiction and control of the municipality or municipalities controlling and operating it.” In this case, as everyone agrees, that controlling and operating municipality is the Port of Seattle. And the statute goes on to provide, in a separate sentence, that “no other municipality in which the airport … is located shall have any police jurisdiction of the same.”

The majority concludes that these two sentences are ambiguous. If the first sentence’s reference to “exclusive jurisdiction and control” really gave the Port exclusive jurisdiction and control over everything that goes on at the Airport, the statute wouldn’t have to say, in the second sentence, that “no other municipality” has jurisdiction. Armed with this perceived ambiguity, the majority concludes that the statute simply provides that municipal ordinances can’t be applied if they would “interfere with airport operations,” and the Port hasn’t carried its burden of showing that the $15 minimum wage will interfere with airport operations. 

This reading of the statutory language seems shaky. Maybe the second sentence, which excludes other municipalities from having extraterritorial power over an airport, should cause us to question what the first sentence means by a port authority’s “exclusive jurisdiction and control.” But the question here is what the second sentence means, not what the first sentence means. And that second sentence—which provides with admirable clarity that “no other municipality … shall have any police jurisdiction” over an airport—isn’t ambiguous. 

The majority also cites RCW 49.46.120, which provides that employees get the benefit of the most favorable minimum wage law. But, as Justice Stephens points out in her partial dissent, this statute applies to minimum wage laws “established by any applicable ... local law or ordinance” (emphasis added). So relying on RCW 49.46.120 doesn’t answer the key question here: whether the City of SeaTac’s minimum wage law applies at all to the workers at SeaTac Airport.

I’m all for SeaTac’s minimum wage law, but the court’s decision seems questionable as a matter of statutory interpretation.