The workforce at White Earth “has been very good to us,” said Tribal Chairman Michael Fairbanks, explaining why the tribe decided to go with a $16 minimum wage for workers at the Shooting Star Casino, tribal enterprises and tribal general government.

The White Earth Nation employs a lot of people, including 470 at the Shooting Star Casino, 904 in various aspects of tribal government, 22 in White Earth business enterprises, and 54 in the Giizhaa (Ready at Hand) program, which provides temporary employees to the casino and tribal government.

“We understand how important and valuable they (employees) are,” Fairbanks said in an interview.

The Tribal Council originally considered a $15 minimum wage, but after some discussion, Fairbanks and the rest of the council decided to up the ante and implement a $16 an hour minimum wage, effective March 27.

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“I give all the credit to the Tribal Council for listening and being part of this big positive thing the White Earth Nation is implementing,” Fairbanks said. “We’re not a very wealthy tribe, but we’re investing into our workforce -- we know how valuable they are.”

Up until now, the minimum wage for non-tipping positions has been $10.44 an hour. “We needed to do something,” Fairbanks said.

The $16 an hour minimum wage will cost the tribe several million dollars a year, but “we felt we had to invest in our people, to improve their quality of life,” he added. “Kudos to our Human Resources Division for putting this plan together.”

The pay hike will help most tribal employees, said Zeke Klinke, White Earth public relations coordinator. “Most people I’ve talked to got a small bump,” he said. “I believe everybody except the administration got something.”

But those at the bottom of the pay ladder will benefit most. “It’s just nice to see those people making $10, $11, $12 bucks an hour get a nice bump in pay,” he said.

The tribe also hopes that the higher starting pay will help it attract and keep employees.

“The pay now allows us to recruit locals to come to work for us, and we’ll be able to retain people,” Klinke said. “They won’t have to go elsewhere -- they won’t have to drive an hour to one of the manufacturing plants. They can drive here from Mahnomen or Naytahwaush and have a nice hourly wage right here.”

The new pay scale “will have a major impact on most of our entry-level positions,” said Shooting Star General manager Scott Stevens. The impact on higher-paid employees “is going to vary based on their reposition and what they are paid at this time … the ultimate numbers increase will be based on their years of service and their position. Tip positions, based on seniority, will see an increase as well.”

If tips are low for a shift, the tribe and casino will make sure “they make a minimum of $16 an hour,” he said.

Higher wages will be good for employees, Klinke said. “People can buy a different car, put tires on their car, or go out on the weekend.” The pay hike will mean some $12,000 a year more for the lowest paid employees, and that will also help local businesses, he added.

“It will be good for our stores and our shops -- people will have more money in their pocket,” Klinke said. “I can’t think of a negative thing about this, it’s all positive.”