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Originally published October 3, 2013 at 4:06 PM | Page modified October 4, 2013 at 8:28 AM

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Minimum-wage debate in SeaTac should be about higher education

The real issue behind the debate over the city of SeaTac proposal to raise the minimum wage should be about the promise of higher education, writes columnist Lynne K. Varner.

Times editorial columnist

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Two women I met this week represent the human contradictions in the debate over the city of SeaTac’s controversial Proposition 1.

Roxan Seibel and LeeAnn Subelbia shared compelling stories with The Seattle Times editorial board as they, in separate visits, argued for and against the Nov. 5 ballot measure seeking to raise the minimum wage to $15 for about 6,300 workers at Sea-Tac airport and its nearby hotels, car-rental agencies and parking lots.

I do not like the ballot measure. It is an end-run around employer/employee salary negotiations and ignores the ability of the marketplace to adequately set wages. But something that cannot be lost is higher education’s effect on the lives of these two women and others on both sides of this debate.

Seibel is a single mother of two daughters, one with serious medical needs. She has worked in retail at Sea-Tac airport for 30 years, now earning $13.95 an hour — a wage that has not changed much despite her duties expanding beyond cashiering to freight work.

Seibel’s oldest daughter is working her way through college.

“Education is the way out of poverty and that’s what I’ve stressed to both of them,” she says of her daughters. Seibel has not been able to fit computer training into her own work schedule. Thus, her hopes for financial security rest upon a $1.05 an hour wage increase should SeaTac voters approve Proposition 1.

On the other side of the divide is Subelbia, a vocal opponent of the measure. She’s in a position to speak for small businesses because of the economics degree she earned at Seattle University while waiting tables and raising a child.

In the time Seibel has worked at Sea-Tac, Subelbia has moved from minimum-wage retail jobs to buying a home and mortgaging that home and her daughter’s home to open up two airport restaurants that currently employ 50 people.

This is not about who took the better path. Both women have had more curveballs thrown at them than most of us could handle. But while Seibel knows college can improve her earning potential, Subelbia is proof that it does.

Two-thirds of all future jobs will require some college. I’m more confident in education’s power to fill those jobs and raise incomes than I am in a city-by-city government takeover of wage regulation.

A national discussion is under way in higher-education circles outlining the challenge of helping people under increasing pressure to update their skills and knowledge. Job requirements are outpacing the skills that worked so well when we got our jobs.

Higher education, from two-year to four-year schools, are smartly adapting to the growing number of people using education for upward mobility. Online courses and streamlining the process for earning a high-school-equivalency diploma are a few of the efforts.

At the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, excitement over something called HS 21+ is contagious. The new effort helps those over age 21 who lack a high-school diploma earn one through community college rather than the K-12 system.

Branch campuses are one way universities reach out to nontraditional students. Sheila Edwards Lange, vice president/vice provost for minority affairs and diversity at the University of Washington, agrees the national conversation in higher education is focused on people who look toward education to help raise their incomes. For instance, the UW operates an on-campus day care that helps students and parents juggle their academic and personal duties.

Many people enroll in college right after high school, which is a good thing. But, nearly one-third of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions nationwide are low-income, first-generation college students.

Nearly 90 percent of them will not earn a bachelor’s degree six years out from high school. Life, from children to work to other responsibilities, gets in the way. Higher-education institutions are right to push for supports for these students.

Two women on either side of the Proposition 1 debate — Seibel and Subelbia — offer compelling reasons to extend this conversation beyond politics to higher education.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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