Counties take up minimum wage discussion as second increase goes into effect in Johnson County


By Chase Castle

As the second phase of a minimum wage increase takes effect in Johnson County this week, elected officials in Linn and Polk counties are among the latest to consider a wage hike of their own.

Last fall, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors unanimously raised the minimum wage for all workers in the county to $8.20 beginning in November, followed by an increase to $9.15 effective this week. A third increase to $10.10 is scheduled to take place in January 2017, while future increases tied to the Consumer Price Index will take effect every summer starting in July 2018.

Earlier this year, the Linn County Board of Supervisors formed an exploratory committee to investigate the impact of a county minimum wage there. The 15-member group includes Democratic State Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Jill Ackerman of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, Ely City Administrator Aaron Anderson, Sofia Mehaffey of the family service nonprofit Horizons, Cedar Rapids resident Karla Goettel, two labor unions representatives and city council members from Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha and Central City.

Also on the committee is Linn County Supervisor James Houser, who said the group plans to examine the economic impact of a wage increase and the legal implications of a local minimum wage. It will also serve as sounding board for local bodies to share input about a possible hike, which Mr. Houser said would likely resemble the $10.10 figure passed in Johnson County.

“We’re trying to build consensus and build support for an ordinance, [and] to get Cedar Rapids and Marion to buy into the proposal, because they are our two largest cities, of course,” Mr. Houser said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do at first – build that support for the possibility of enacting that as an ordinance.”

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said last year that her office found no evidence that a county minimum wage would violate state law, although Iowa City’s attorney, Eleanor Dilkes, and others have suggested that setting county or city minimum wages could lead to litigation.

Nonetheless, multiple jurisdictions in Iowa are advancing plans for a possible minimum wage increase, including Des Moines’ Polk County, where its Board of Supervisors was scheduled to appoint members Tuesday to a minimum wage task force.

In contrast to the Johnson County cities of Oxford, Shueyville, Solon and Swisher, all of which voted to opt-out of the county mandate, council members in Tiffin established their own minimum wage of $9 last month. Mayor Steve Berner said that figure was selected in order to stay ahead of the $8.75 amount state lawmakers considered last year.

“It wasn’t arbitrary,” Mr. Berner said.

He said many local business representatives were indifferent toward the increase, largely because most employees were already earning above the proposed amount.

“But I wouldn’t say they supported it,” Mr. Berner added. “Most of them, especially the daycare in town, were against it.”

Amanda Rairden is the owner of Little Clippers Child Development Center in Tiffin, where about 80 parents affiliated with the daycare signed a petition submitted to the city in opposition to an increase.

The daycare center has 53 employees, Ms. Rairden said, including 34 part-time workers, about a dozen of whom now earn the county minimum of $8.20 an hour.

In addition to university students and mothers looking for supplementary income, some of the part-time employees are high school students younger than 18 years old. Ms. Rairden said state law restricts the supervisory duties minors can perform, which disincentivizes the hiring of younger workers.

“Why should a high school student get paid $10.10 an hour when they can’t really do the same job that somebody that’s 18 or above can do?” she said.

Ms. Rairden said the city’s wage increase is unlikely to result staff reductions or tuition increases in the near future, but she will review finances later to see if changes need to be made.

“Certainly we’ll have to ‘eat’ some of it,” Ms. Rairden said. “We’ll just have to see how it plays out at the end of the year and how much it affects us.”


State solutions

Although there’s little consensus among the Corridor’s elected officials on what, if anything, should be done to address minimum wage, most agreed the initiatives wouldn’t be necessary were the state legislature to raise the wage first.

The last time state lawmakers approved a minimum wage increase was in 2007, when they raised the wage to $7.25, which is also now the federal minimum. A proposal last year to increase the wage to $8.75 was approved in the Senate, but failed to advance through the Republican-led House.

According to local lawmakers, another state-led increase will not happen without a change in the legislature’s makeup.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, said along with proposals addressing issues like medical cannabis and wage theft, a state minimum wage hike will not be implemented under a Republican majority in the House, where Democrats are outnumbered 57-43.

“Those are all going to depend on sending more Democrats to the Iowa General Assembly,” Mr. Bolkcom said.

Sen. Kevin Kinney, a Democrat from Oxford, also said he’d prefer to have the issue addressed at the state-level, and said future proposals could remove the process from lawmakers’ hands entirely by permanently tying changes to the cost of living.

“There are just so many different ways you can look at it, but I think what the county is doing is drawing positive attention to the issue,” Mr. Kinney said. “And for me, it’s something that needs attention brought to it.”