Three months ago, when a new $15 minimum wage took effect in SeaTac for hundreds of airport-related workers, Lou Lehman looked forward to an extra $5-an-hour in her paycheck.
Instead, she says, she received an extra 32 cents from her employer, Extra Car Airport Parking in SeaTac, bringing her hourly rate to $10.32.
“It’s just so insulting,” said Lehman, 54, of Tacoma. “For people who work there full time, it’s the difference between poverty and comfort.”
Now, Lehman is suing Extra Car in what is believed to be the first legal test of the enforcement mechanism under SeaTac’s new pay ordinance.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court, also comes as the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray consider enacting a $15 minimum wage.
SeaTac voters in November narrowly approved a ballot measure to raise the city’s hourly wage floor for airport-related workers to $15 from the statewide standard of $9.32.
The lawsuit says Extra Car should pay its hourly workers the $15 minimum, but refuses to do so. Plaintiffs’ lawyer Martin Garfinkel, of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender in Seattle, estimates that about 40 employees have been underpaid by Extra Car since Jan. 1.
The suit seeks class-action status and demands back pay, plus interest and double the wages owed in damages.
“It’s unfair to the workers not to pay them the minimum-wage rate that the citizens of SeaTac said needs to be adopted. And it’s also unfair to their competitors,” Garfinkel said.
A call to Extra Car was not returned Wednesday.
SeaTac City Manager Todd Cutts said Extra Car is the first business to face complaints of alleged pay violations since the $15 minimum wage took effect Jan. 1.
Extra Car’s “belief is that the ordinance does not apply to them,” Cutts said. “We’re having a dialogue with them about whether or not that’s the case.”
Lehman joined about 30 labor activists at a protest rally Wednesday outside Extra Car’s parking lot off International Boulevard to demand a $15 minimum wage. Across the street, rival MasterPark advertised $15-an-hour pay on a large sign aimed at job applicants.
The rally turned contentious when a man identified as Extra Car’s owner, Michael Vergillo, briefly confronted protesters, but he declined to comment and soon left.
Lehman and 12 other employees filed complaints with the city of SeaTac in late January and early February, accusing Extra Car of pay violations.
Lehman, who had been working part time at Extra Car to supplement her income as a full-time library assistant in Tacoma, believes she was let go two weeks ago in retaliation.
The company asked her to work more hours, then fired her when she declined, Lehman said. At least two others who filed complaints and no longer work at Extra Car say they also were retaliated against, but those claims are not part of the lawsuit.
Cutts, the SeaTac city manager, wrote to Extra Car’s Vergillo on Feb. 19 to notify him about the complaints and urge him to review the municipal ordinance.
“Please be aware that the City of SeaTac has not investigated this complaint and therefore is not currently planning any further action,” the letter states.
Cutts now says his staff has requested information from Extra Car to determine if, in fact, the ordinance applies to the company and whether it’s in violation.
The law says parking-lot operators with more than 100 spaces and at least 25 nonmanagerial employees in SeaTac must pay a $15 minimum wage.
It allows workers who believe their employer is breaking the law to sue in King County Superior Court or complain to the city attorney. But the city attorney is not required by law to take legal action or pursue another remedy.
Enforcement costs were a contentious issue during the election campaign, with opponents arguing that the city would need to hire employees to oversee the ordinance, diverting scarce resources away from police, parks and roads.
Proponents countered that enforcement costs would be minimal and that SeaTac’s main obligation was to survey businesses and keep records.
The city, for now, is handling complaints with “existing resources” and has not hired any additional employees, Cutts said.
Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for pro-Proposition 1 group Yes! for SeaTac, said the ordinance was written with the city’s small tax base in mind.
“They don’t have a lot of resources for enforcement,” she said. “That’s why we wrote a very clear citizen-lawsuit enforcement provision.”
She added that creators of a $15 minimum wage in Seattle may want to consider a similar provision.
“Sure, I’d love it if they took on enforcement,” she said of SeaTac. “But, frankly, a private lawyer is more motivated.”