White Earth Nation gives big raise to lowest paid workers

White Earth tribal chair Michael Fairbanks
White Earth Chair Michael Fairbanks in July 2019. He says a minimum wage increase to $16 an hour for tribal employees “sets a standard for wages in our region” and improves quality of life for hundreds of casino workers.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2019

The White Earth Nation in northwest Minnesota is doubling the minimum wage it pays to tribal employees — from $8 to $16 an hour. The increase applies only to businesses owned by the tribal government.

The tribe approved the increase to keep up with the cost of living and stay competitive in a job market that remains tight in spite of the economic disruptions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"With the gas prices, the medical costs, everything that's going up, we had to come to this sooner or later,” White Earth Chair Michael Fairbanks said. “Hopefully we can get the other tribal nations to follow behind us, and other corporations and companies to do so also.”

In Minnesota, the minimum wage is currently $10.08 an hour for employers with more than $500,000 in revenue, and $8.21 an hour for smaller employers. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have approved increases that will eventually establish a $15 per hour minimum wage. 

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The federal minimum wage stands at $7.25, but Democrats have been pushing to raise it as high as $15. A provision to do that was originally included in the COVID-19 relief bill passed this month, but it lacked support from some moderates in the party and was stripped out for procedural reasons. 

With 19,000 members, White Earth is the largest tribal nation in Minnesota, located just north of Detroit Lakes.

A water tower is seen past a field
Water tower of the village of White Earth. Photographed on Dec. 15, 2020.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2020

The pay increase takes effect March 20 and will mean bigger paychecks for hundreds of employees who work at the tribe-owned Shooting Star casino in Mahnomen, Minn.

"The impact is going to be for every team member in one way or another," general manager Scott Stevens said.

The raise will be less dramatic for employees who supplement their wages with tips because the $16 minimum wage includes income from gratuities. This is different from the way the state minimum wage works. Employers are required to pay it regardless of how much an employee earns in tips.

The casino currently employs 470 people under coronavirus limits that restrict restaurant dining, banquets and concerts, but Stevens said the casino will need about 650 full-time workers when health restrictions are lifted.

The wage increase will also affect people who work for the tribal government itself and other businesses it owns.

"We just wanted to give everyone a living wage,” Fairbanks said. “It's an investment for us to retain and to keep what we have and give our team members and band members a healthy wage."