I could work at McDonalds and earn the same, says former Marine Alex Popescu about his job fueling jetliners at Sea-Tac Airport
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • "I could work at McDonalds and earn the same," says former Marine Alex Popescu about his job fueling jetliners at Sea-Tac Airport

Back in 2004 when (according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) a gallon of gas averaged $1.77 at the pump, a loaf of bread cost $0.95, a pound of bacon $3.13, and a gallon of milk $2.79, Paul Jordan earned $10.00 an hour as a skycap at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Eight years later gasoline costs about four bucks a gallon, a loaf of bread $1.40, a pound of bacon $4.60, and a gallon of milk $3.50. But Jordan still only earns $10.00 an hour handling baggage.

"Nothing has changed except the cost of living," Jordan explained outside the Museum of Flight this morning at a press conference called to introduce a new report (PDF) outlining "poverty-class jobs" at our "first-class airport." According to the report produced by Puget Sound Sage, OneAmerica, Faith Action Network, and Working Washington, Sea-Tac's contract workers—wheelchair attendants, skycaps, ramp workers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and fuel technicians—have the lowest average wages of any west coast airport, averaging only $9.70 an hour. That only comes to $20,176 a year for full time work, a bare $1,600 above the federal poverty line.

Like Jordan, fuel technician Alex Popescu is a veteran, having served with the US Marines in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And like Jordan, he too only earns $10.00 an hour for his work. "I could work at McDonalds and earn the same," says Popescu of his job fueling airplanes. As disabled veterans, both Popescu and Jordan get their own health care coverage through the Veterans Administration, but neither can afford to purchase the family coverage offered by their employer. "It's $300 a month," says Popescu, "a quarter of my paycheck. That's a car payment or half my rent." If his wife or daughter get sick it comes out of his pocket, says Popescu. If they get really sick, it's taxpayers who will ultimately pick up the bill.

Speaking at today's event, state Representative Dave Upthegrove (D-33), who represents the Sea-Tac area, says the poverty wages and lack of benefits of many airport workers ends up costing the state millions of dollars a year in additional public health care costs. Like the other speakers, Upthegrove was there to call on Alaska Airlines, Sea-Tac's largest tenant, and the Port of Seattle to take a "stronger leadership role" in addressing the "growing gap between the haves and the have nots" at the airport. According to the report, it's not a role Alaska Airlines has a reputation for playing:

Menzies [Aviation] began contracting with Alaska in 2005 and, overnight, nearly 500 Alaska Airlines ramp employees, who earned an average wage, adjusted for inflation, of $15.59 per hour, were terminated and replaced with new Menzies staff who earned an inflation adjusted $10.17 per hour. Seven years later, the average non-supervisory Menzies employee makes an estimated $9.66 an hour, or over $12,000 less in annual earnings than Alaska ramp employees in 2005, according to our survey.

Alaska has recorded record profits over the past couple years, and its top executives have enjoyed multimillion dollar bonuses. But much of this prosperity has come from slashing the wages and benefits of thousands of airport workers, many of whom now qualify for food stamps despite working full time jobs.

And it doesn't have to be this way. Currently at $9.04 an hour Washington's inflation-indexed minimum wage is consistently one of the highest in the nation, but many California cities impose a much higher minimum wage than the state or federal rate. Workers at San Jose International Airport earn a minimum of $14.37 an hour; at LAX it's $14.97.

Alaska manages to fly into those and other airports that pay their ramp workers something far closer to a living wage, so you'd think they'd be able to do the same here at their home airport where they are responsible for 55 percent of all landings and half of all passengers.