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Airport workers press for affordable health care

Union says members now make too much to qualify for government subsidized health insurance, but can't afford employer coverage.

MINNEAPOLIS — Two years after MSP Airport workers campaigned successfully for a $15 per hour minimum wage, they're knocking on the door again for affordable health care coverage.

Leaders of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 8,000 property service employees in the Twin Cities, is calling on the Metropolitan Airports Commission to require airport contractors to offer affordable health insurance plans.

The labor group is encouraged by the fact that the Metropolitan Airports Commission, or MAC, required airport subcontractors to raise minimum pay. The 2020 vote took effect in three incremental phases, with the $15 per hour wage floor kicking in July 1, 2022.

"I have a diabetes. I have high blood pressure," union member Khadiga Zail told reporters. "So, if I don't have health insurance it's not going to be good for me. I will lose everything."

SEIU leaders say the higher minimum wage raised pay enough to make it harder for its airport members to qualify for low-cost government subsidized health coverage. According to the union, a recent survey found 82% of the SEIU members previously qualified for Minnesota Care, which has much lower premiums than employer-based group plans.

"Most workers here at MSP will no longer qualify because now they make $15 an hour," Brahim Kone, the secretary-treasurer for SEIU Local 26, explained.

"These are people who are risking so much, especially during COVID, to keep this airport running."

He said airport workers can't buy discounted health insurance through the MNSURE exchange because it's only available to people who don't have access to coverage through an employer. The plans offered by airport contractors cost employees $200 per pay period, the union said.

Jeff Lea, the MAC's communications manager, issued the following statement:

"Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has made considerable progress related to fair wages and a positive work experience for the thousands of frontline workers who support the safe and efficient operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). The MAC passed a minimum wage ordinance in the fall of 2020. We are evaluating the proposed federal legislation that was discussed this morning and will monitor its progress through the legislative process."

The federal legislation he referenced is the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, authored by U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia of Illinois, which would raise pay and benefits for airport workers across the nation if it becomes law.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is a co-sponsor of that bill, appeared with the airport workers at Monday's press conference to lend her support.

"The last two years we’ve been saying essential workers should be celebrated as heroes," Omar remarked. "They have kept our economy going. They’ve kept businesses going. They’ve kept this airport running."

At least one MAC commissioner, Leili Fatehi of Minneapolis, supports the idea. Commissioner Fatehi spoke at the SEIU press event.

"We here at the MAC can and must do everything that is within our power to address the gaps and disparities that persist in the wages and benefits of our workforce, the majority of whom are people of color or immigrants."

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