WAITING

FOR

TAKE-OFF
How the Futures of

Minnesota’s

east African Communities
& MSP Depend on
Each Other.

This report was authored by Eden Yosief, Social Justice Research Fellow with
the Center for Popular Democracy. We also wish to acknowledge Connie Razza
and Aditi Sen for providing their expertise in the development of this report.

ABOUT THE CENTER FOR

POPULAR DEMOCRACY
The Center for Popular Democracy works to create equity, opportunity, and a dynamic democracy
in partnership with high-impact base-building organizations, organizing alliances, and progressive
unions. CPD strengthens our collective capacity to envision and win an innovative pro-worker,
pro-immigrant, racial and economic justice agenda.

www.populardemocracy.org
@popdemoc

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INTRODUCTION
OVERVIEW

Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport (MSP)
consistently ranks among the top airports in the
United States.1 As the largest and busiest airport
in the upper midwest, MSP serves as an economic
driver of the entire region.2

Yet, over the years, the quality of jobs at MSP has been declining, due to the national trend of
airlines contracting critical service jobs to the lowest bidder. Today, even the highest paid outsourced
workers in these ground-based airport jobs earn less in real terms than the average directly-hired
worker in the same job a decade ago.3 Jobs that once provided solid livings -- support workers
like baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and cart drivers -- are now characterized by low-wages, high
turnover, little access to benefits and diminished power to negotiate employment conditions.
Direct employment at airlines fell by 160,000 workers, a quarter of the workforce, between 2001
and 2011. Over the same period, passenger traffic among major U.S. airlines grew by more than 30
million, an increase of 6 percent.4

The lowest paying airport jobs are often mostly performed by people of color.5
In the Twin Cities, East African immigrants and descendants
dominate the passenger assistance and service jobs, where they face:
Poverty wages. Many service workers at MSP
earn between $8.00 and $8.50. Assuming 40
hours per week at $8.50 an hour, a worker
would earn just $17,680 per year, while the
federal poverty line for a family for 4 is
$24,250.8 However, many low-wage airport
workers do not get full time hours, making it
even more difficult to make ends meet.
Workforce instability. Low pay and no benefits
(no health insurance, holidays or vacation)
result in high turnover, additional training
costs, and more experienced workers carrying
more weight of an ever-changing workforce,
at the same rate of pay as new workers.
Inadequate staffing levels. Contractors
often have an insufficient number of staff
to do the job right, due to high turnover
and unpredictable scheduling. As a result,
employees are overworked and at a greater

risk for injury. Disabled passengers are not
given the assistance they are entitled to by law,
flights are delayed, and customer satisfaction
declines.

MSP can take steps to address these
declining wages and improve labor
standards, by adopting a prevailing wage
requirement for service contract workers
at MSP, and responsible contractor policy
that prevents contractors who violate labor
laws from operating at the airport.
This report explores how degradation
of airport jobs affects Minnesotans,
particularly of East African descent, and
what MSP and surrounding communities
can do to ensure the health and safety
of our airport, our communities and the
greater Twin Cities area.

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OVERVIEW

EROSION OF JOBS

AND WAGES AT MSP
Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport has earned countless praise over the years as
one of the best airports in North America. MSP is a publicly-owned entity and an economic
engine vital to the health of the local, regional and national economies.

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EROSION OF JOBS & WAGES AT MSP
The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has a vision to provide the “best airport experience
in North America.”9 By many measures, it is succeeding.
• Travel and Leisure Magazine recently selected MSP as the Best Airport in America.10
• The US Department of Transportation lists MSP as having the 3rd best on-time departure rate.11
• Travel Leaders Group ranked MSP 4th best in the nation for business travelers, and 2nd best in
several other categories.12
• A recent InterVISTAS Consulting report calculated that the airport injects $10 billion a year into
the area economy through jobs, tourism, and tax revenue.13
In addition to driving regional economic development, other central tenets of the MAC’s mission
include ensuring that the airport meets the needs of the community, provides a safe and secure
location, and is easily accessible for all.14
Airport jobs used to be good, dependable jobs when service workers were direct employees of
the airlines they serviced and had benefits like health insurance, paid sick time and vacation. They
enjoyed airline-employee perks and a comfortable wage to support a family. They had steady
schedules, sufficient hours, reasonable workloads and respect on the job.
But times have changed, and so has MSP. The service workers who make the airport’s success
possible-- who ensure the airport is clean, accessible and efficient--do not benefit from their hard
work.

“Today,

even the highest paid
outsourced workers in these groundbased airport jobs earn less in real terms
than the average directly-hired worker
in the same job a decade ago.” 3

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EROSION OF JOBS & WAGES AT MSP
In recent years, airlines have outsourced much of their work, including passenger service
responsibilities such as cabin cleaning, cart driving, and wheelchair services. Between 2002 and
2012, airline contracting of baggage handler jobs more than tripled at US airports, from 25% to
84%.15 At the same time, average hourly real wages across both directly-hired and contracted
workers declined by 45%, from over $19 an hour to $10.60.16 The number of contracted vehicle
and equipment cleaning jobs doubled nationwide, from 40% to 84%, while wages fell from the
equivalent of over $15 an hour to $11.40, a 25% drop.17

percentage of outsourced airline workers

Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to Restore Good Jobs at American Airports

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Companies compete to be the lowest bidder, fostering a race to the bottom which impedes
equitable economic development and increases pressure to undercut the high standards MSP seeks
to maintain. The general public invests heavily to ensure that airports are efficient, safe and wellconnected to the cities they serve. Corporations operating at the airport must also invest in their
workers to maintain these high standards, yet with many workers earning minimum wage without
benefits, there is little incentive to stay in the job long term.
Minnesota communities are making these investments while significant numbers of airport workers
and their families are living in or near poverty and must rely on safety net programs to make ends
meet.

average airport worker wages
in dollars

Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to Restore Good Jobs at American Airports

MSP employs more East African workers than any other single place of employment in all of Minnesota.6
Immigrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia account for at least 2,500 active badge holders at
MSP, more than half of the foreign-born population.18 Over the past 15 years, an increasing number
of East Africans have been taking employment at the Twin Cities airport.

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east africans

in the twin cities
The foreign-born population of Minnesota has tripled since 1990 and East African communities
have a significant presence in the culture of the state.20 More Somalis now call Minnesota home
than any other place in North America.21 According to US census figures, more than 20,000 Somalis
live in Minnesota, while some estimates exceed 50,000. The number of Ethiopian immigrants in
Minnesota has increased more than 10 times since 2000, and thousands more Eritreans have
settled in Minnesota.22

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EAST AFRICANS IN THE TWIN CITIES
There is no single location in the state that employs more East Africans than Minneapolis-St. Paul
International Airport. The vast majority of East Africans at MSP are in low-wage service jobs. East
Africans have been keeping the airport’s vital services running for decades. Turnover is high, with
few workers who have been working there more than a few years, but those who have stayed
have seen their wages fall drastically overtime. This erosion of wages has a significant impact on
the communities in which airport workers live. Poverty wages at the airport hurt all communities,
and East African communities bear one of the heaviest burdens of low quality jobs at MSP, which
perpetuates rather than alleviates poverty.

COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN OF FOREIGN-BORN
MSP WORKERS
Eritrea
2%

Somalia

16%
39%

Ethiopia

43%
Other

MSP Airport Badge Holders document acquired through the Minnesota Government
Data Practices Act request to the MSP Airport Police Department

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EAST AFRICANS IN THE TWIN CITIES
The dichotomy between the airport’s high marks on performance and its low-quality working
conditions contributes to the stark disparities in the region at large. In the past year alone,
Minnesota --Minneapolis in particular-- has topped list after trending list as one of the healthiest,
most educated, and economically vibrant states in the nation.22 Minnesota was ranked 2nd best
state to live in overall, but it is ranked the 2nd worst in livability for African Americans.23 The high
school graduation rate of black students is 57%, when overall students are graduating at a rate of
78%. 24
A closer looks at economics of East African immigrant communities further highlights these
massive disparities. Not only are median household incomes dramatically lower for East African
communities than the rest of the state, they’ve also fallen significantly over time.

ANNUAL MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD

INCOME FOR MN COMMUNITIES

“Individuals below the federal poverty level by racial and ethnic group, Minnesota, 1989-2013” Minnesota Compass.

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The poverty rate in the Somali community is astonishingly high, with 63% living below the federal
poverty line.25 Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of Ethiopians in poverty increased from 18
percent to 24 percent, triple the growth among white Minnesotans.26

POVERTY RATES IN MINNESOTA
COMMUNITIES

“Individuals below the federal poverty level by racial and ethnic group Minnesota, 1989-2013” Minnesota Compass.

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EAST AFRICANS IN THE TWIN CITIES
The problems facing low-wage workers at MSP extend
beyond insufficient wages. They also note that with no
minimum guaranteed hours each week, short shifts, oncall days -- for which they must keep themselves available
in case they get called in -- and being sent home mid-shift
are practices that sacrifice their economic security in favor
of the “flexibility” of the corporations that employ them.
One Ethiopian worker earning $8 an hour said she’s been
sent home after just an hour or two of work when her
supervisor decided they no longer needed her services
that day: “If I work two hours, including transportation
time, I pay $9 for daycare plus $4 for bus fare, I made less
than $4 that day...and that’s before taxes.” On those days,
her job has cost rather than earned her money.27
The “flexible scheduling” that airport contractors practice
results in high turnover and instability. Workers report that
without a steady schedule, they are unable to set doctor’s
appointments, remain actively involved in their children’s
education, maintain or get second jobs to supplement
their income, or further their own education. They have
neither certainty about what hours they need to hold for
their airport job nor dependable income because their
hours at MSP fluctuate significantly and workers get their
schedules on short notice.

I came to this country with a plan to go
to school. Many of us were educated back
home, but they won’t accept a degree
from Addis Ababa University here. I want
make a better life for my kids, I want to
go to school and be a nurse but I can’t
do that with all of the bills we must pay
and my responsibilities to the children.
It’s impossible to live like this.”
– Alem Hurissa, wife of an Air Serv Employee

It’s difficult to
collect reliable
information of the
Eritrean community
in Minnesota, a
common obstacle
when looking
into the plight
of marginalized
communities.
To compensate,
Eritrean community
members, leaders
and airportOVERVIEW
worker
interviews were
used, and they
have echoed
similar concerns
and issues to those
affecting Somali
and Ethiopian
communities.

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Wages have fallen at many jobs at MSP. For example,
I worked as a Lavatory and Water Driver, draining and
refilling the toilets on Delta planes in 2008 making $12.50
an hour. In 2014, when a new contractor won the contract
they were offering $8 an hour for the same job. During that
time everything has gotten more expensive, yet wages are
going down. It makes it impossible to advance in life”
- Ibrahim Mohamed, Cart Driver for AirServ and Commissioner of MAC

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EAST AFRICANS IN THE TWIN CITIES
Workers reported being unable to pay their bills on just their salary. At $8.50, a fulltime worker would earn $17,680 per year, $14,264 less than is needed to meet the
MN cost of living.28

Yearly Cost of

Living in MN

Full-time worker
earning $8.50/hr
Minnesota Cost of Living Study, February 1, 2015

This demonstrates that a worker cannot afford to live on the low-wages some contractors are
paying at MSP. Accounting for average rent, transportation and food costs in Minnesota, low-wage
workers fall short, and that is before factoring in child care, clothing, medical, utilities and other
expenses.

In contrast, CEO of Delta, Richard Anderson’s compensation
package for 2013 totaled over $14 million, which comes to more than
$6,900 per hour. He made more in three hours than a full-

time cabin cleaner makes in an entire year.29

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Every year, thousands of East Africans immigrate to the United States for economic opportunities
and the chance at a better life, yet MSP workers have explained how things have gotten worse for
them since their arrival. In Ethiopia, for example, a job at the airport guarantees one a comfortable
life and benefits. This has caused strife between families when workers have to explain to a loved
one living in Ethiopia that they are scraping by and cannot send them money while working at
an airport in the USA. Many families in East Africa and countries around the world depend on the
money they receive from relatives living in the US and Europe for survival. One worker stated that
she had not spoken to her family in months because they do not believe she is earning so little, and
that she is not sending money to them for other reasons.
Despite the difficulties scheduling, more than a third of surveyed workers at MSP reported having
to work two jobs, due to low pay.30 Others rely on public assistance to help them meet their living
expenses. However, the significant fluctuations in schedules complicates their ability to access
public assistance. For example, if someone works 100 hours one month, and 80 hours the following
month, they should be allotted more benefits for the second month, but they have to prove their
income changed. Although their eligibility for the appropriate level of assistance depends on their
collecting and presenting proof of income, their irregular schedules demand this updating too
frequently and create obstacles to planning the time to go to the appropriate government office
or offices.

If the average service worker is making $8.50,
a wage increase to $15 would:
• increase take-home pay $10,000 for a full-time worker.
• bring $25 million in disposable income to the East African communities and more
than $8 million in income taxes.31
• generate $1.1 million in annual sales tax revenue from airport workers alone.32
• stimulate an additional $14 million in economic activity in local communities.33
A $15 minimum wage at the airport would pull thousands of families out of poverty, decrease the
number of households receiving public assistance benefits, and begin to move Minnesota toward
greater racial equity. The effects this wage increase could have on families is immense. By some
estimates, as many as 20% of Ethiopians in the workforce are employed at the airport at any point
in time.7 Raising wages gives workers the opportunity to take control of their own lives, acquire and
generate wealth within their communities and create a better future for East African communities
to thrive.
Minnesota taxpayers have invested significant amounts in the development and expansion of MSP.
MAC’s mission is to “Provide and maintain airport facilities and services that meet the needs of
the community.” The MAC now has the opportunity to make good on that public investment and
advance its mission.

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conclusion
The MAC has at its disposal the tools and the authority to reverse the decline of wages and working
conditions at MSP. In fact, recent experience shows the capacity of the MAC to take the lead in
improving working standards for employees throughout the airport, even employees not directly
under its regulatory authority. In the Fall of 2014, the MAC passed a Paid Leave Policy for workers
employed by 21 different subcontractors that provide services for the flying public, raising standards
for an estimated 2,000 employees. Soon afterwards, Delta Airlines extended a similar Paid Leave
Program to its employees, ultimately impacting thousands more workers at MSP who are not under
the regulatory authority of the MAC. In short, the MAC exercised leadership to elevate standards
for workers throughout the airport.

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CONCLUSION
To address the issues of poverty, low wages, and unsafe and unfair working conditions
as detailed in this report, we recommend:
• The Metropolitan Airports Commission should exercise its leadership to establish a living
wage requirement of $15 an hour to raise standards and improve the lives of workers
throughout the airport.
• The MAC should adopt a prevailing wage requirement for service contract workers at
MSP to establish a stable, reliable workforce that delivers high quality services to the flying
public, including passengers with disabilities, and to ensure that workers are compensated
fairly according to the real value of the services they perform.
• The MAC should adopt a responsible contractor policy that prevents contractors who
violate wage and hour laws, health and safety rules, airport security regulations, and other
important legal protections from operating at MSP.

Setting labor standards could reverse the decline in
wages that airport workers have experienced over
the years and create a better functioning airport.
Minnesotans have a direct interest in requiring that
their airports are not only safe and reliable, but also
good employers. It is imperative to diminishing the
disparities gaps in the state that we highlight existing
systems that contribute to those disparities and focus
on solutions that work for everyone.

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endnotes
1. Halter, Nick. “Delta CEO: MSP is world’s best-run airport” Minneapolis/St. Paul Business
Journal. September 23, 2014. Accessed February 24, 2015.

2. ”Airport Traffic Reports.” Airports Council International - North America - The Voice of Airports.
Accessed February 23, 2015. http://www.aci-na.org/content/airport-traffic-reports.

3. Miranda Dietz, Peter Hall, and Ken Jacobs. “Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to
Restore Good Jobs at American Airports.” October 2013.

4. Ibid.
5. “A Missed Opportunity: How the BWI Airport Concessions Program Fails Baltimore’s African
American Community” United Here! Accessed January 23, 2015.

6. This number was determined by identifying the largest places of employment and the largest
employers in the State of Minnesota. Those numbers were then cross-referenced with selfreported racial diversity rates of employment of each employer or place of employment.

7. “Foreign born population Minnesota, 2000-2012” Minnesota Compass. Accessed February 7,
2015.

8. “2015 Poverty Guidelines for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia” U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.

9. “The Metropolitan Airports Commission 2012-2016 Strategic Plan,” p.8.
10. “Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport ranks No. 1 in magazine survey,” Pioneer Press,
Brady Gervais, April 20, 2012.

11. “MSP Airport Ranks 3rd For On-Time Departures,”Twin Cities Business, Rebecca Omastiak, May
6, 2013.

12. “Survey Reveals Preferred Domestic Airports for Connections, Amenities, Dining, Kids and
More,” Travel Leaders Group, January 29, 2013.

13. “Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Economic Impact Study,” InterVISTAS Consulting
LLC, March 2013, p. 4.

14. “The Metropolitan Airports Commission 2012-2016 Strategic Plan,” p. 9.
15. Miranda Dietz, Peter Hall, and Ken Jacobs. “Course Correction: Reversing Wage Erosion to
Restore Good Jobs at American Airports.” October 2013.

16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. MSP Airport Badge Holders document acquired through the Minnesota Government Data
Practices Act request to the MSP Airport Police Department

19. “Foreign born population Minnesota, 2000-2012” Minnesota Compass. Accessed February 7,
2015.

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20. “NEW AMERICANS IN THE NORTH STAR STATE: The Political and Economic Power of

Immigrants, Latinos, and Asians in Minnesota” Immigration Policy Center. October 15, 2009.
Accessed February 28.

21. “Foreign born population Minnesota, 2000-2012” Minnesota Compass. Accessed February 7,
2015.

22. Thompson, Derek. “The Miracle of Minneapolis” The Atlantic. February 16, 2015. Accessed
February 25, 2015.

23. Nickrand, Jessica. “Minneapolis’s White Lie” The Atlantic. February 21, 2015. Accessed Feb 25,
2015.

24. Allen, Ashley C., Thomas C. Frohlich, Alexander E.M. Hess, Alexander Kent, Douglas A. McIntyre.
“The Worst States for Black Americans” 24/7 Wall St.. December 9, 2014.

25. “Individuals below the federal poverty level by racial and ethnic group Minnesota, 19892013” Minnesota Compass. Accessed February 7, 2015.

26. Ibid.
27. Ethiopian airport worker interview, February 5, 2015.
28. Clay, John, Steve Hine, Amanda, Rohrer. “Minnesota Cost of Living Study 2015 Annual Report.”
February 1, 2015. Accessed February 28, 2015.

29. “Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s total comp rises to $14.4 million” Atlanta Business Chronicle.
April 30, 2014.

30. “Bring Dignity Back to MSP” Service Employees International Union Local 26.31. “Bring
Dignity Back to MSP” Service Employees International Union Local 26.

31. Assuming all 2,500 badged airport workers’ wages increased from $8.50 to $15 per hour, or
$31,200 annually, at full-time.

32. As of April 2015, sales tax are paid to Minnesota, Hennepin County, City of Minneapolis and

Transit Improvement. Their respective rates are 6.875%, 0.15%, 0.5% and 0.25%, equalling 7.775%.

33. This study assumes a spending multiplier of .56, from Catherine Reutschlin’s 2012 study of

retail workers. 14 This multiplier is applied to workers’ take home pay, or the remaining after
subtracting a total of 6.2% for Social Security, 1.45% for Medicare, 5.35% for Minnesota income
tax, and an assumed 12.7% marginal Federal tax rate according to their income. Under the $15
proposal, we estimate total take home pay to come to $25 million, and net economic activity to
be .56 times that figure, or 14 million.

Cover Photo Attribute: “Goodbye Minneapolis” by A Gude (http://bit.ly/1IGGgWK)
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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