Ahead of a decisive meeting, the Metropolitan Airports Commission appears set to raise the minimum wage at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to $10 an hour, a step that would leave neither side satisfied in a roiling debate over what to pay low-wage employees of airline subcontractors.
MAC Chief Executive Jeff Hamiel recommended in a memo that commissioners at a meeting next Monday set a minimum wage for airport workers that is $1 an hour higher than the state minimum wage.
That means the pay floor at the airport would be $10 an hour on Aug. 1, when the Minnesota minimum wage rises to $9, and $10.50 an hour in August 2016, when the state wage rises again.
About 2,800 airport workers would be covered by the requirement. Workers say the increase is not enough, while airlines say no difference from the state level is justified.
The Service Employees International Union, which has been pushing the MAC for a $15-an-hour pay floor at the airport, is urging a no vote to Hamiel's recommendation. It also noted that about 300 rental car workers will not be eligible.
"It's better than nothing, but I don't think it is a living wage," said Misrak Anbesse, a wheelchair assistant who has worked at the airport since 2009. "We have to organize ourselves and work more."
She said too many employees of airline subcontractors must work two jobs, and share housing with other people in order to make ends meet.
Abdi Ali, who has worked at the airport since 2007, said he also was hoping for more. "We were demanding $15, but if they had gone to $12 I would have said, 'OK, that's something,'" Ali said.
Ali fears the commission will not revisit the issue for a long time. But he believes there is hope of swaying commissioners.
"We are going to go to the commissioners' meeting and I think our voices will be heard," he said. "A lot of us are going to be there."
Gov. Mark Dayton in March joined calls for commissioners to set a $10 minimum wage at the airport. Higher wages for airport workers have been a major priority of the SEIU, which represents about 250 janitors at MSP and is trying to organize about 700 other workers.
Business groups have argued that higher wages affect the airport's competitiveness and may lead airlines to drop some flights.
Delta Air Lines, which along with its regional carriers flies 72 percent of the airport's passengers, did not return a call for comment.
Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the trade group Airlines for America, said in a statement that the appropriate way to set a minimum wage is through the state legislature or at the federal level, not at the airport.
"With approximately 3 million workers in the state of Minnesota, there is no policy justification for having a different minimum wage for a few thousand workers at one airport," Jennings said.
After leaders of the Seattle airport instituted a $15 minimum wage for its workers, the group sued to block it.
Some MAC commissioners believe the minimum wage should be set by the state while others back the SEIU's push for a $15 wage, chairman Dan Boivin said. "Is this a compromise? Yes, it's a compromise," he said.
The fact that many airport workers must draw on public assistance and that most of the low-wage workers are employees of third-party subcontractors helped the commission decide to examine the wage issue, Boivin said. Also weighing on commissioners, Boivin said, is the fact that the airlines are now posting healthy profits.
"I don't expect this argument to go away," Boivin said. "What I would hope is that these third parties and these workers can get together and work something out."