Even though the pandemic has savaged air travel, thousands of workers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will get a raise come 2021.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which operates MSP Airport, voted unanimously Monday to increase the hourly wage incrementally, eventually raising it to $15 by the summer of 2022.
The action covers a wide swath of employees who work at the airport, from baggage handlers to food preparers — essentially anyone whose work affects the traveling public or aircraft operations.
The decision was heralded Monday by labor unions and worker advocacy groups that pushed for the airport to follow the lead of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, which adopted similar wage ordinances over the past three years.
"This is an important step towards making sure this wonderful airport, which has won so many awards, is a place where everyone who helps make it run is treated with the respect we deserve," Glen Brown, a wheelchair agent at MSP who currently earns $11 an hour, said in a news release Monday.
But in recent months, several retail and food concessionaires at MSP expressed concern about increasing wages as the number of travelers has dwindled in the pandemic.
MAC Chairman Rick King said "you always worry about the way the economic climate is now," but noted the airport is considering ways to mitigate the financial pinch for concession operators in coming months.
Increasing the hourly wage requirement at MSP "will help equalize us with the cities because we're still at a bit of a disadvantage" since many employees work in secure areas, King said.
When COVID-19 struck last spring, passenger volume at MSP dropped by more than 90%. Since then, volume is about 30% of 2019 levels.
Of the 78 food and beverage concessions at MSP, only four are fully operating at pre-pandemic levels, while 47 remain closed and 27 have reduced hours. Likewise, of MSP's 52 news and retail shops, 25 are closed, 26 are operating with reduced hours and just one is open full time, according to a MAC report.
Still, MAC officials say air travel has crept back slightly since last spring.
The annual Minnesota Educator Academy (MEA) four-day break saw the biggest increase in passenger travel last weekend since the pandemic struck last spring.
On Oct. 15, nearly 17,500 passengers cleared Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints at MSP, making it the busiest day since the week of March 16, the MAC said.
Over the past week, including the MEA break, MSP averaged 14,177 travelers passing through checkpoints, a 20% increase over the previous week and 17% higher than the Labor Day week, when it averaged 12,124 passengers.
Nationally, TSA said it screened more than 1 million passengers Sunday, representing the highest level since March 17.
"I think there's a pent-up demand to travel again, and it's merging with the public's increased confidence about traveling safely," said MAC CEO Brian Ryks, noting MSP and other airports have implemented "major health safety initiatives." At MSP, that includes a "robust" cleaning regimen, increased hand sanitizing stations and protective barriers.
"A pandemic doesn't change the fact that people who work in this economy need to support themselves and their families," said Ryan Winkler, the Minnesota House Majority leader at the Legislature.
Wages will increase to $13.25 on Jan. 1, 2021, $14.25 on July 1, 2021, and $15 on July 1, 2022.