MSP workers unite to push for affordable health benefits

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar joins union members as they release a report highlighting the need for affordable health insurance at MSP Airport.

Workers who led the successful push for a $15 minimum wage at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have launched a new campaign for affordable health insurance benefits.

At a press conference inside Terminal 1 today, janitors, gate agents, catering workers and others at the airport explained that, as their hourly wages increase beyond $15 per hour, many in their ranks fear losing eligibility for the government insurance programs on which they rely.

Insurance benefits currently offered by their employers, airport workers said, are unaffordable for most, with high premiums and deductibles.

“It would be too hard because $15 is not enough for me to afford to pay for the insurance,” MSP worker Khadiga Zail said. Managing her diabetes and high blood pressure without coverage, she added, would be impossible. “If I don’t have health insurance, it’s not going to be good for me. I could lose everything.”

Workers want the Metropolitan Airports Commission to amend the ordinance it passed increasing MSP’s minimum wage, adding an “hourly health and wellness benefit” to the minimum compensation airport contractors must offer their employees.

At least one person on the 15-member MAC already supports the idea. Leili Fatehi, who represents Minneapolis residents on the commission, stood alongside airport workers at the press conference.

“Fifteen is not enough for me to afford to pay for the insurance,” MSP worker Khadiga Zail said.

“We here at the MAC can and will do everything that is within our power to address the gaps and disparities that exist in the wages and benefits of our workforce, the majority of whom are people of color or immigrants” Fatehi said. “That is why I am committed to continuing to work with the groups that are here today to find solutions meeting the needs of our workforce, including affordable health care.”

Governing bodies at other U.S. airports have adopted similar requirements, with hourly benefit contributions ranging from $2.39 in Oakland to $9.50 in San Francisco.

Three unions that represent workers at MSP Airport – Teamsters Local 120, Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26 and UNITE HERE Local 17 – released a report today recommending MSP employers “eventually” be required to provide hourly fringe benefits at the same level as federal contractors under the Service Contract Act. The local rate is $4.80 per hour now, and it increases annually with inflation.

The report includes results of a survey of 290 MSP service workers from 17 different employers. Among workers who had coverage at the time of the survey, just 15.2% said they receive benefits from their employer, and 83.3% reported accessing insurance through government programs.

“There should be no reason, when there are record profits for the airlines, that our workers are worried about how they are going to pay for their doctors, or having to come into work sick because they can’t afford to go to the doctor,” said Local 17 President Christa Sarrack said, whose union represents about 1,500 food-service workers at MSP.

The report also highlights the positive impact an affordable-insurance requirement at MSP could have on the Twin Cities’ racial disparities, among the worst of any metro area in the U.S. MSP workers are disproportionately black and foreign-born, with a large population of East African immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, meanwhile, said the report reinforces her push in Congress to pass the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, which would require hub airports to ensure workers at their facilities are covered by prevailing wage and provided fringe benefits. The bill has 49 co-sponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate.

“For the last two years we’ve been saying essential workers should be celebrated as heroes,” Omar said. “They have kept our economy going, they’ve kept businesses going and they’ve kept this airport going. It’s imperative that we don’t just say thank you, but we thank them with benefits, with wages and with labor standards.”

Minimum wage at the airport will increase from $15 to $15.19 per hour Jan. 1, 2023.

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