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Originally published Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 4:13 PM

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How Alaska Airlines has adapted without a minimum-wage mandate

Why Alaska Airlines has raised wages for vendors even though it’s not required to under the new SeaTac minimum wage law, according to guest columnist Jeff Butler.

Special to The Times

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Not sure of the validity of this piece but I do believe that the best way to avoid unions and have a well run business... MORE


AT Alaska Airlines, we’ve done our share of wrestling with the minimum-wage issue. We depend on engaged, satisfied employees. In an industry as competitive as ours, that’s the only way to deliver an exceptional passenger experience. Our Alaska team and vendor partners are committed to taking a thoughtful, fact-based approach to wages in our region.

This was reflected in our recent announcement about entry-level wage increases for vendor employees. We asked our vendor partners to raise wages and agreed to reimburse them for their additional labor costs. For ramp agents, aircraft fuelers and cabin cleaners, the hourly wage was increased to $12 an hour. In some cases, this raised starting pay as much as 28 percent. These increases make Alaska vendor partners among the highest-paid vendor employees at Sea-Tac. The state’s minimum wage is $9.32 an hour.

In November, voters in the City of SeaTac passed a law raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour at some businesses. While that rule does not apply at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport where Alaska operates, the company has gone ahead and raised wages. The Seattle City Council recently passed a law to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over a number of years.

As important as a fair minimum wage is, it is not the long-term key to keeping employees happy and fulfilled — or to helping our region stay economically viable. If we really want to help those struggling to keep up financially, we need to create more opportunities. We need more solutions that offer minimum-wage workers better avenues to family-wage careers. Not only do these workers benefit — it’s also smart business.

Port Jobs is a good example. This highly successful nonprofit connects King County residents to Port-related jobs and training opportunities in the airport, trade, logistics, construction and maritime sectors. Port Jobs has served more than 78,400 community residents and has helped 12,300 people find jobs since its creation in 1993. Alaska Airlines has been involved from the start, and we recently pledged $1.5 million to support Port Jobs and job-training at the Port of Seattle.

With this grant, Port Jobs will rapidly increase the amount of training offered to current airport workers, including computer skills, customer service and logistics courses, qualifying them for good careers that would pay more than entry-level minimum-wage jobs. Many of the current airport workers who take these classes are English-language learners who will receive college credits leading to certificates and degrees. Alaska will then focus on these program participants in hiring for union-represented, well-paying jobs with full benefits.

This is a concrete step to move workers from minimum-wage jobs to family-wage jobs, with better income and career potential. It also makes our airline better by providing qualified employees who are ready to hit the ground running. That’s an extremely important benefit when you’re a smaller airline battling to remain independent. Our biggest competitive edge is our service — which is to say, our people. The more we can do to support their career growth, the more we help the business.

We believe in this program and the people it helps. We also understand that it will make us more competitive in the long run. We are investing in well-trained, high-potential employees who will help Alaska Airlines continue to win in the marketplace.

Even as we all debate, define and decide what constitutes a fair minimum wage today, true economic progress also requires thoughtful investments in tomorrow — investments in training, education and job placement. We should all be willing to partner for long-term solutions — not just to argue over today’s hot political issues.

We know these civic partnerships work. Port Jobs, for one, has worked well for us for many years now. Partnerships that educate, train and help position qualified workers for success are good for everyone. And we encourage other businesses and organizations in our region to engage in such partnerships and make such investments, too.

If we can collectively devote as much creative energy to long-term solutions as we have to the minimum-wage debate, we might not generate as many headlines but we would stand a better chance of making sustainable economic progress that benefits us all.

Jeff Butler is vice president of airport operations and customer service for Alaska Airlines.

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