To help attract and retain more workers in a competitive market, the White Earth Nation and the Shooting Star Casino in northwestern Minnesota are boosting their minimum wage to $16 an hour.

The new starting wage, which includes hourly wages and tips, takes effect later this month. It is a considerable boost for the casino's tipped employees, who previously started around $8 an hour, as well as non-tipped employees for whom the entry-level wages were around $10 to $11 an hour.

"A lot of the jobs down in Detroit Lakes were getting up to $15 or $14 an hour starting point," said Michael Fairbanks, White Earth Nation tribal chairman. "As a council, we wanted to be competitive and also wanted a better quality of life for our members and our team members."

He added that the council hopes the wage boost will help workers who are struggling to make ends meet and will stimulate the local economy, which is still recovering from effects of the pandemic.

Scott Stevens, general manager of the Mahnomen-based Shooting Star Casino, said the pressure on wages has been coming from manufacturers in the area as well as from retailers such as Walmart and Menards.

"We're hoping we'll see more applicants once this gets out there," he said, noting that the casino has about 60 open positions it would like to fill.

The casino, which is still ramping operations back up after being shut down during the first few months of the pandemic, currently employs about 470. That number typically swells to 650 workers during its busier months, Stevens said.

The new minimum wage will also affect hundreds of people who work in areas such as sanitation and building supplies on the state's largest reservation.

While the casino business is still down, Stevens said he's hoping for a rebound with vaccines rolling out and the weather warming up. He added that not all casino workers have returned to work yet because some areas such as dining and entertainment are not yet back up to full operations.

Minnesota's unemployment rate, which fell to 4.5% in January, is still at an elevated level. But at the same time, tens of thousands of Minnesotans have also stopped looking for work as the fear of catching the virus at work and the challenges of remote schooling and other increased family responsibilities during the pandemic have led some people to temporarily leave the labor force.

In its most recent beige book economic summary published earlier this month, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis noted that while employment has been flat, hiring demand appears to be on the rise this year with increased job postings across the Ninth District, which includes Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana and parts of Wisconsin and Michigan. It said staffing firms were reporting that they were having difficulty filling available jobs, especially for those paying less than $20 an hour.

"Wage pressures were modest overall, but stronger in some sectors seeing higher labor demand," the bank said in the snapshot of regional economic conditions published eight times a year.

Under the Biden administration, the debate around raising the federal minimum wage has found some new momentum. But efforts by Democrats to include a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the COVID relief packaged passed earlier this month ultimately were unsuccessful.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are among the cities around the U.S. that have passed ordinances in recent years to raise their minimum wages in phases to $15 an hour. Minneapolis will reach $15 an hour by 2024, with St. Paul following in 2027.

Meanwhile, some companies have been raising starting wages on their own. A few years ago, Amazon set a $15 per hour minimum wage for its employees. Last year, Target's entry-level employees were also bumped up to $15 an hour.

At the White Earth Nation, Fairbanks said the initial proposal the council considered was to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. But they decided to go a bit higher to $16. He said staff members did the math and figured they will be able to absorb the increased costs.

"A lot of employees are overjoyed right now and are glad that we're stepping up to the plate," he said.

And, he added, he hopes others will follow suit.

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113 Twitter: @kavitakumar