It looks like the big shots are about to follow the advice of Kip Hedges, who was fired in December for giving it.

Four months ago Hedges worked for Delta Air Lines, where he had held several labor jobs over the past 26 years. Hedges had been part of an effort to raise wages of airline industry workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where the people who load and unload planes, help seniors and disabled passengers get around and issue tickets earn as little as $8 an hour, with no benefits.

In an interview with a labor publication, Hedges had the audacity to say this: “A lot of the Delta workers make under $15 an hour. As a matter of fact, I would say probably close to half make under $15 an hour. So there’s a lot of them that understand how important this is. And a lot of the better-paid workers also understand that the bottom has to be raised otherwise the top is going to fall, as well.”

Shocking? Yes, but also pretty much true.

Delta, however, saw it differently, and fired Hedges just before Christmas for apparently failing to uphold “our core values of respect and honesty in any communications regarding Delta.”

Now it appears the Metropolitan Airports Commission agrees with Hedges that pay at the facility is too low. In a memo released Tuesday, MAC chief executive Jeff Hamiel recommended a minimum wage that is $1 per hour higher than the state minimum wage. He will propose the raise when they meet Monday. The pay floor for the airport would be set at $10 per hour on Aug. 1, rising to $10.50 per hour in August 2016.

Other members of the commission are pushing for a wage over $14 per hour, and Hedges thinks there may be enough votes to get it. Those who will benefit, whether it’s a $10 or $14 minimum wage include ticket agents, aircraft cleaners, cart drivers, wheelchair pushers and sky caps, Hedges said.

Hedges credits “all the demonstrations, rallies and attention” directed toward the MAC, as well as attention to the matter by Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed two workers to the MAC board. When appointing the new board members, Dayton apologized for not doing it sooner. He had recently learned of how hard airport workers struggle to make ends meet because of low wages.

“It is a life changer for a lot of people,” said Hedges, who is still unemployed. “It means they can actually feed their children a little better and pay their bills.”

Any raise will be especially beneficial to the region’s East African communities. A recent report found that at least 2,500 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea hold badges to work at the airport.

A recent report by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) argued that the economic fate of East Africans in Minnesota was largely tied to wages at the airport, and suggested the MAC could remedy the situation by demanding subcontractors pay a higher minimum wage.

Abera Siyoum is one airport worker who thinks a raise would make a huge difference in his life. During a phone interview, his baby, Naomi, fussed in the background.

Siyoum has cut back his hours to 24 per week. He also puts in 84 hours every two weeks as a machine operator for a company just to pay the bills. His wife stays home to take care of the kids because she can’t find a job that pays enough to cover day care.

“I’m a father of three,” said Siyoum. “I can’t get by on $8 an hour. It’s very, very hard — not just paying the bills, but having some time to spend with my family. I don’t get time off to care for my newborn. If I stay home to take care of her one day, I don’t get paid.”

Siyoum, 36, said he is not alone, that some of his co-workers work two or three jobs. Some work more than one job at the airport and arrange shifts to jump from one job to another.

“I’m not a lazy person, I’m a hard worker,” said Siyoum. “I love my job. It’s just not enough to support my family. I wish people could work at the airport for a few months to see what it is like. Some people need to open their eyes.”

MAC commissioner Carl Crimmins said it’s likely the commission will pass the initial dollar raise, which would take effect Aug. 1. He said he’s waiting to see an objective study by Hamline University to decide how much more airport workers should make.

“We passed [a requirement] for paid time off and the dollar raise seems to have support,” Crimmins said. “We’re trying to do what’s right for the employees. At least there is some movement, and it’s upward movement, not downward.”

That makes Hedges feel like his firing was not in vain.

“When Delta fired me, they gave me more time to do what they fired me for,” said Hedges, who has continued to push for higher wages for his former colleagues. “You put so much energy into something and a lot of times it fails. It’s nice to see that we might finally see some success.”

 

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