By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Late-arriving ballots in a vote to enact a $15 per hour minimum wage for many airport, travel and hospitality workers in a Seattle suburb have turned sharply negative, throwing the outcome into doubt even as opponents sue to block the measure if it wins.
A week after the election in the tiny, blue-collar city of SeaTac, home to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, ballots in favor were ahead by just 43 votes.
The ballot initiative, backed by unions and other community groups in the city of just 28,000 people and 12,000 registered voters, has drawn national attention in a debate over wages in the still-recovering U.S. economy.
"SeaTac has really caught people's attention and imagination," said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for the Yes For SeaTac campaign, which backs the measure and has held it up as a model to be replicated elsewhere.
Supporters of the wage ordinance see it as an opportunity to help local workers while encouraging other communities - particularly cities with progressive tendencies and smaller voting pools - to take similar action.
But opponents complain that mandating such a high minimum wage would slow the region's economy, and could put the jobs of less skilled workers at risk as the higher wage attracts better qualified applicants.
Washington state already has a higher minimum wage than any other U.S. state, at $9.19 an hour, and the SeaTac wage would be among the nation's highest, just below a $15.38 rate mandated for city workers and contractors in Sonoma, California.
On election night last week, the wage measure's prospects appeared to be strong. Early returns showed that it was ahead by 8 percentage points, and supporters declared victory.
But Washington state uses a system that requires all voters to mail in their ballots. And as they trickled in, the tide began to turn.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
By Tuesday night, the 8-point lead had dwindled to less than one percentage point, with yes votes clocking in at 50.4 percent and no votes accounting for 49.6 percent. With 5,232 ballots counted and the deadline to postmark ballots already a week past, officials said late Tuesday that they don't expect too many more to come in.
With late-arriving votes breaking in favor of the "no" side, both campaigns said a recount in the coming weeks was likely to be unavoidable.
Bruce Beckett, a lobbyist for the Washington Restaurant Association, which opposes the measure, took heart in the late surge of no votes.
"People who decided to vote 'no' decided to vote 'no' late and submitted their ballots at the end," said Beckett, whose group has characterized the initiative as a costly job-killer.
His organization is among the plaintiffs that on Friday resumed a court battle initiated before the election seeking to block the measure from taking effect on January 1 should it win.
The lawsuit argues in part that SeaTac lacks the authority to impose a minimum wage on workers at the airport, which is within its borders, because it is owned and operated by the Port of Seattle, a separate government entity.
Opponents have also pointed out that fewer than 20 percent of the workers covered under the initiative live in SeaTac, leaving city government to police a set of rules that mostly benefit non-residents.
The wage measure would apply only to workers in the travel and hospitality industries, including parking lot attendants, hotel maids and airport vendors. But it would exempt small firms, airlines and unionized work forces.
The initiative is not without precedent. Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country's first so-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governments have followed suit, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Four major California airports operate under ordinances similar to the SeaTac measure, including one guaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plus health insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airport workers earn $10.91 per hour plus health insurance benefits.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Ken Wills)