There will be no escaping the minimum wage debate when the Iowa Legislature assembles in a few days, but the question is - will lawmakers raise it themselves, or just prevent anyone from raising it at all?
I doubt if it will take very long for them to propose some action to squash cities and counties that are beginning to try to establish their own minimum pay rates.
Can’t blame them, either. A hodgepodge of different local wage laws would be a confusing mess for workers and employers. You might actually have workers and businesses fleeing across county borders to seek higher or lower rates, respectively. And frankly, I’m not exactly sure how city or county governments would enforce local laws that conflict with state standards, anyway.
It might be fun to see the headaches this would cause for corporate HR managers, though. McDonalds with a different starting wage in every town in the state?
Neither Storm Lake or Buena Vista County have openly discussed a local rate, but what if they did? Imagine the tug of war they would face.
Do you want to attract workers? - and we do - you might want to set a minimum wage well above state standard - say 10 bucks an hour. Do you want to attract and expand business - and we do - you might want to keep the wage as low as possible and hope others around you go higher, making you an attractive place to do business.
In other words, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
There’s a whole school of thought about local control and balance of power to consider too, which we have seen debated already in education, and this will no doubt play into the legislature’s discussion this year. Not only should local municipalities raise minimum wages, but do they have the right and authority to?
With Republicans in full control across the board in Des Moines this year, if they want to make a statewide minimum wage the rigid law of the land, there won’t be any stopping them, barring a city or county filing a lawsuit and injunction against their own state.
So don’t be surprised when the legislature acts, and honestly, they probably should.
But, to just leave it there - stopping anyone from raising wage laws locally above the dirt-poor state level - would be irresponsible.
There are reasons why cities and counties are starting to defy the state on this, and they deserve discussion.
Iowa hasn’t raised a minimum wage in ten long years. Former Iowa Senator Harkin had campaigned for a federal increase to $10.10 an hour, saying that was the amount it would take to lift a family of three above poverty level.
The state needs to have a dialogue - what would be gained, and what risked, with a higher minimum? We might retain more workers, sure, but we might discourage development, too. Then again, do we want the kind of development that leaves its employees below poverty level and dependent on local charities?
State minimum wage levels are all over the board - some at the federal $7.25, a few with no minimum at all, and a few at or close to $10 The DC area is over $11. It would be interesting to investigate the effects of those choices on their economies.
Needless to say, minimum wage is not the be-all savior of the working stiff.
As of 2014, only 58 percent of the people working in the U.S. were paid hourly rates. Of these 77.2 million hourly workers age 16 and older, only 1.3 million were making the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
So a raise in minimum wage would impact only a fraction of 1 percent of workers, and it could negatively effect as many or more - if a business has to pay three bucks more an hour for its entry level or summer help, don’t expect them to generously crack open some magic pot of cash - they will likely cut someone’s job to balance the books, or cancel raises for higher-paid workers who have been there longer, and may be more likely to have families to support.
You have to take care to address the implications before you act. And just raising minimum wage does not solve your issues.
In the long run, Iowa has to foster development of better jobs, better job training, and incubate entrepreneurial job creation - so workers are worth more than $7.25, and our young people don’t have to flee to other parts of the country for a career. That’s the discussion our legislature should be having, and has been skirting for decades.
With all this said, it wouldn’t be a bad message for the state to raise minimum by a reasonable amount in the process, especially if they are going to outlaw cities and counties from pre-empting their minimum pay rate. Something near $9, perhaps, or a stepped system to go to $10 in stages over a few years.
The political fallout is going to be ugly if the legislature forces Polk, Johnson, Linn and Wapello County workers to take big pay cuts back to a perpetual $7.25.
As much as a consistent statewide level makes sense, I wouldn’t want to be the guy voting to take food off a family’s table.