Heartless In The Heartland

Iowa minimum wage

In an appalling move to keep low-wage workers locked in poverty, the Iowa legislature this week gave final approval to a bill that reverses local minimum wage increases already approved in several counties and bans cities and counties from setting any wage and benefit standards.  It is the first time that a state has nullified local minimum wage ordinances that had already taken effect and forced jurisdictions to lower minimum wage rates that had previously been raised.

 

On a vote of 29-21, Republicans in the Iowa Senate voted unanimously for the bill, which passed the House earlier.  After signing it today, Governor Terry Branstad will forever be known as the governor who robbed tens of thousands of Iowa’s lowest-paid workers of their pay raises.

 

Immediately, minimum wages for 29,000 workers in Iowa’s Johnson and Linn counties, who have received raises thanks to higher local minimums enacted in the last two years, will be reduced to the poverty-level federal minimum of $7.25 from $10.10 and $8.25 respectively. The Wapello County minimum wage, now $8.20, will also be cut back to $7.25. Another 36,000 low-wage workers in Polk County, the state’s most populous, will be denied the raises they were scheduled to receive starting April 1, when the local minimum is set to rise from $7.25 to $8.75 per hour.  And this week, Lee County became the fifth county in Iowa to approve a higher minimum wage. Its first raise, to $8.20 starting May 1, will be reset to $7.25 as well. All told, more than 85,000 Iowans will be robbed of the raises they were to see over the next two years.

 

Eighty-four percent of these workers are 20 years of age or older. Nearly 60 percent work full-time. More than half are women. Thirty-one percent are parents. Almost a third are at least 40 years old. And now they face not only low pay, but pay cuts.

 

Who does this to people? How do they sleep at night? And, more practically, how did this happen?

 

It’s been nearly ten years since the statewide minimum wage was last raised in Iowa, and that was to $7.25 an hour shortly before the federal minimum wage became $7.25 as well. Since then, Republican lawmakers in the state have stymied all attempts to enact any increase, as have Republicans in Congress on the federal level. So Iowa has remained one of 21 states stuck at the shamefully low $7.25 minimum wage.

 

Faced with such obstruction, most states and more than 40 cities and counties have enacted higher minimum wages in recent years – including seven states and 18 cities and counties last year alone. In Iowa, starting two years ago, local county boards of supervisors began considering ways to raise the pay floor for their lowest-paid workers.

In 2015, Johnson County, home to the University of Iowa and Iowa City, the state’s fifth largest, became the first county in Iowa to enact a local minimum wage ordinance. It raised the minimum wage in stages over three years, first to $8.20, then to $9.15, and hitting $10.10 this year. Linn, Polk, and Wapello counties enacted higher minimum wages in 2016, with their ordinances raising minimum pay to between $10.10 and $10.75 by 2019. Lee County supervisors began considering a higher wage plan last year – one they adopted this week ― to reach $10 by 2020. Local activists have been looking to spark additional campaigns in other cities and counties.

 

Seeing the momentum building, a gaggle of business lobbying groups, working hand in glove with their statehouse Republican allies, first sought to slow things down and undermine the county-based raises by getting some towns to opt-out of the increases. But undoing the county raises entirely, and stopping other localities from pursuing their own would likely take a Republican “trifecta” – GOP control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office.  And, for nearly two decades, Republicans had not won total control of state government.

 

Then came the 2016 election. The majority which Democrats had maintained since 2007 in the Iowa Senate was lost to the Republicans last November. When the state legislature began its new session this year, Republicans had their “trifecta.” And the business lobbyists unleashed a slew of anti-worker bills, including HF295 to nullify and preempt local minimum wages.

In recent years, more and more cities have enacted local minimum wage laws as a means of improving jobs for local workers – especially when state legislatures refuse to act.  In response, corporate lobbyists from groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are going over the heads of local leaders and pushing preemption laws to strip cities of the power to act. To date, 23 other states have enacted minimum wage preemption laws, including the notorious case of Alabama last year, which blocked a higher minimum passed by the City of Birmingham from taking effect.

 

But never before has a state government acted to reverse minimum wage increases already in place, and remove long-standing local self-governing rights in such a brazen fashion as today in Iowa.  Unfortunately, they could well be joined shortly by equally heartless lawmakers in Missouri.

 

For the struggling workers and families harmed so directly by these lawmakers ― these pawns of the rich and of powerful business interests ― it is troubling to realize that there are elected “leaders” who would be so singularly devoted to ensuring that they stayed poor.