Top Minnesota lawmaker vows to act on health care for airport workers if commission won’t
State Sen. Erin Murphy

ST. PAUL, Minn.—Airport workers are dialing up the pressure on employers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the airport’s governing body to do something to make their health insurance more affordable, with a top state lawmaker joining their cause.

Health benefits have been a sticking point in separate negotiations covering two groups of workers at MSP Airport, about 450 airline catering workers represented by Unite HERE Local 17 and over 1,000 wheelchair agents, cabin cleaners, cart drivers and others represented by Service Employees (SEIU) Local 26.

Membership surveys have shown the overwhelming majority of low-wage airport workers do not access their employer-sponsored health insurance, instead relying on government programs for coverage.

Their unions have been fiercely lobbying the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) in recent years to pass a minimum standard for affordable health insurance that all MSP-based employers would be required to offer.

They’ve recruited State Sen. Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, the assistant majority leader, to their cause.

If MAC leaders and employers fail to act, Murphy told a press conference in late December, she will introduce a bill mandating that airport employers offer affordable health coverage.

Six weeks later, the commission and the businesses inside the airport still haven’t moved.

Shegh Freeburg, Secretary Treasurer of Unite Here Local 17

“We don’t have the benefit of travel without the people who staff our airports,” Murphy said then. “These are physical jobs, where they can be injured in the workplace. They are working in close proximity to other people where they could easily catch something. They need meaningful health care coverage to protect themselves and to protect their families.”

Determining health benefits “is rightfully done at the bargaining table,” Murphy added. But if she and other lawmakers don’t see workers and management reach a negotiated solution, they will look for a legislative fix.

Sheigh Freeberg, secretary-treasurer of Unite HERE Local 17, welcomed Murphy’s support.

“We’ve pushed employers for affordable health care, and they’ve said no,” Freeberg said. “We’ve pushed the airport council…for affordable health care, and they’ve said no. We are continuing those fights, but we are excited to have state Sen. Erin Murphy…to fix this problem at the state level if those who have the direct power will not.”

MSP Airport workers have succeeded in lobbying the airport commission for higher standards in recent years, including a minimum wage above $15 per hour and a mandate requiring employers to offer paid sick days. But union leaders say workers’ lack of access to health coverage remains a stain on the airport’s reputation.

In a recent survey of nearly 300 airport workers from 17 different employers, just 15.2% of workers who reported having health insurance said they access the benefit from their employer.

“The workers who make this an award-winning airport continue to show up day after day, and they will step up and make sure that the (passenger) experience is great, that the spaces are clean and that the food is delivered on time,” Freeberg said. “It is time for those in power to do the same and step up to make sure these workers have affordable health care. We are not going to stop fighting until they do.”

SEIU Local 26, whose members are employed by MSP subcontractors, remained in negotiations as  The Union Advocate went to press. Their contracts expired January 31.

About 450 catering workers based at MSP Airport are covered by nationwide talks between UNITE HERE and SkyChefs that have dragged on for over two years. The talks fall under the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act, which severely limits union members’ ability to exert pressure on their employers through a strike.

“Federal law has failed these workers,” Freeberg said. “We’re looking for the MAC to step up and set a minimum standard of health care that is affordable.”

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore

Michael Moore is the editor of The Union Advocate, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a member of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union/CWA Local 37002.