As a military veteran with a college education, Darcy Landau is overqualified for his job as a wheelchair agent at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Earning wages of $7.25 per hour, Landau struggles to make monthly car payments, pay back his student loans and meet his basic needs.
“If it weren’t for the VA,” Landau said, “I don’t know how I’d survive.”
Landau’s is hardly an isolated case. Low-wage jobs have provided the fragile foundation for the current U.S. economic recovery, accounting for more than half of the jobs created since 2010. As more and more adults turn to retail, service, hospitality and temporary jobs, public scrutiny of wages paid in those industries is increasing.
A report unveiled yesterday sheds light on the working conditions of Landau and roughly 600 other passenger-service workers at MSP, including cabin cleaners, wheelchair agents and motorized cart drivers. Its findings reveal that many earn wages at or near the legal minimum, even after many years on the job. Few can afford the health care insurance offered by their employers, and many say they are forced to access public services like food stamps and Medicaid to meet their basic needs.
Jordan Ash, an organizer for Local 26 of the Service Employees International Union, which compiled the report, said the public is essentially “subsidizing poverty wages at MSP” to the tune of $1.7 million per year.
Local 26 has been working with passenger-service workers on a union-organizing drive for the last two years. But at a press conference outside Terminal 1 yesterday, workers and community leaders pointed to the report’s findings as yet another reason to raise the state’s minimum wage.
“We can’t afford to live with a $7.25 minimum wage, to pay our bills,” said Misrek Anbesse, who has worked as a cabin cleaner for the last four years. “We have to look for a second job.”
“I have seven kids,” said Samson Yeshitla, who earns $7.25 working for G2 Secure Staff, a Texas-based contractor that provides Delta Air Lines with wheelchair agents and electric-cart drivers. “It’s hard to survive.”
Yeshitla is one of more than 300 parents working for poverty-level wages at the airport, according to Local 26’s report. Peggy Flanaganan, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, said increasing in the minimum wage would directly improve the lives of airport workers’ children, too.
“We know if we increase minimum wage to $9.50 by 2015, over 137,000 children will directly benefit,” she said, pointing to research by the Brookings Institution indicating a $1,000 increase in families’ incomes corresponds with tangibly improved educational outcomes for their children.
State Rep. Ryan Winkler, lead author of a bill to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 by 2015, also stood with airport workers. His bill, supported by the labor-backed Raise the Wage coalition, would increase wages for 360,000 Minnesotans, and boost purchasing power by $400 million throughout the state’s economy.
“It’s important to remember the economy is leaving behind a great many workers,” Winkler said. “Hard work should deliver somebody a decent quality of life. It’s about time we all start doing better.”
Local 26 already represents about 200 cleaning workers at MSP. Under the terms of their collective bargaining agreement, they earn, on average, $14 per hour with health benefits.
That’s why workers like Landau aren’t just fighting for an increase in the minimum wage; they’re also working to form a union.
“This is only the beginning,” Landau said. “We’ll continue to fight until we get justice.”