Airport officials consider joining move to $15 minimum wage

Travelers wait to get through security at the airport.
A long line of travelers waiting to get through security stretches on and on at Terminal 1 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Business owners and workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport pleaded their cases Tuesday as the commission that runs the airport weighs a $15 minimum wage.

The proposed wage ordinance would step the current minimum wage to $13.25 in July, to $14.25 next year and finally to $15 in 2022.

It would closely — but not exactly — track similar ordinances in St. Paul and Minneapolis and cover thousands of workers. Current state law sets the minimum at $10 for large employers and $8.15 for small employers.

Airport officials previously passed a wage ordinance in 2014, requiring some airport employers to pay $1 an hour over the state minimum wage.

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The Metropolitan Airports Commission’s committee on operations, finance and administration held a public hearing on the newer and larger proposal at the airport Tuesday and heard from workers, union leaders, business owners and even state legislators.

Most lauded the plan, saying it would provide a better living standard for everyone from baggage handlers to aircraft cleaners to fast food cooks — many of them immigrants and people of color.

Glen Brown told the commission he currently makes $10.86 an hour as a wheelchair attendant for a security firm, even as airlines have posted billions in profits.

“Like many of my coworkers, I’m a proud parent, but what that means for many of us here is that we work two or three jobs just to make the ends meet to care for our families,” Brown said. “The people that are making the airport run make poverty wages.”

City and state officials also hailed the draft wage ordinance, and said it would help raise the standard for thousands of people working at the airport for everyone from airlines to book stores.

Business owners, however, told the airports commission that their situation wasn’t comparable to other employers away from the airport, because of the highly regulated environment the airport represents, including price and operation regulations that won’t let them compensate for higher wages.

“This is very impactful for all of us here,” Pady Regnier, founder and CEO of the Airport Retail Group, told the commissioners the wage increase. She runs about a dozen storefronts at the airport, including the Prince store in Terminal 1.

“I can’t raise prices,” she told the commissioners. “Because I have brand agreements where I have to keep at street pricing.”

Frederic Estes, who runs four newsstands and two small electronics shops, said the wage ordinance could backfire on efforts to promote racial equity at the airport.

He said the extra costs would hit small women-owned and minority-owned businesses the hardest. “This will create a significant hardship on our businesses and may put some of us out of business, or at the very least require us to cut jobs and hours.”

The airports commission is taking written comments on the proposal through Monday. The MAC hasn’t yet set a date to consider the comments or take up the matter again.