The Potluck

White Earth Nation to boost minimum wage to $16 an hour, highest in the state

By: and - March 18, 2021 2:07 pm

White Earth Nation flag.

When the White Earth Nation increases its minimum wage to $16 an hour on March 27, it will be the highest minimum wage of any government entity in the state.

The move by the state’s largest tribe — also one of its poorest — aims to raise living standards for hundreds of employees and make it a more competitive employer as nearby businesses and retailers ratchet up low-end wages.

“The council wanted to invest not only in our band members but our team members and to improve their quality of life,” said White Earth Chairman Michael Fairbanks, noting the tribal council unanimously approved the wage increase last month.

While governments and businesses across the state have increased their starting wages to $15 an hour or pledged to in the near future, the White Earth Nation will one-up them to $16 an hour overnight.

“We’re not here lavishing in dollars,” Fairbanks said. “We just wanted to be competitive with everyone else. And with investing into our band members that work for us, it boosts the strength in our local tribal economies.”

Governments and businesses across the country are under increasing pressure to raise wages for the lowest earners, whose paychecks have lagged behind inflation for decades.

Many economists are on board too: Generous unemployment benefits and three rounds of stimulus checks have stabilized the economy despite the pandemic, showing the value of putting money into the pockets of people who will quickly spend it.

House Democrats reintroduced legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, while Minneapolis and St. Paul are on track to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage by 2024 and 2027, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Hennepin County Board will vote next week on raising the minimum wage of its employees from $15 to $20 an hour, with proponents arguing the move will reduce racial disparities and help the lowest-paid workers afford the rising cost of living.

White Earth’s minimum wage increase will double the current minimum wage for the tribe’s tipped workers at its Shooting Star Casino, while raising the minimum wage for non-tipped workers and other government employees about 50%, from $10.44 an-hour now.

The pay raises come as the tribe looks to ramp back up its casino operations to full capacity after a difficult year. Last fall, the tribe shut down its casino and laid off 95% of its staff — around 700 people — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Shooting Star Casino has since reopened to two-thirds capacity, including the gaming floor and two restaurants. The casino is operating with a third of its usual staff, and it isn’t hosting concerts or events.

The end of the pandemic is within sight, however.

The White Earth Nation has been one of the most efficient distributors of COVID-19 vaccines and is now inoculating all adults who live or work on the reservation, as well as residents older than 45 years old in neighboring counties.

As the spring tourism season begins, the tribe plans to hire around 300 more employees. Scott Stevens, the general manager for Shooting Star, said the higher wage will help attract talented workers.

“From the operations standpoint, we’re looking at this as a positive thing,” Stevens said. “We’re going to gain more applicants.”

The casino is a major employer for both Native and non-Native people near the reservation, and its profits help fund critical tribal services like the police department, health care and youth programs. While the higher wages will cut into the tribe’s revenues, Fairbanks said they won’t result in cuts to services.

White Earth is the first tribe to implement such a high minimum wage, and Fairbanks said he hopes other communities follow suit.

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Gracie Stockton
Gracie Stockton

Gracie Stockton is a senior at the University of Minnesota. She was awarded the 2021 Kaufman scholarship from the Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication and joined the Reformer as an intern. Gracie also studies theatre and Russian, and is an artist in her free time.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.