Linn county wage proposal offers illusion of progress

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Aime J. Wichtendahl, guest columnist

It’s always sad when important issues get sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

When the Linn County Minimum Wage Working Group voted for a recommendation to increase the minimum wage to $8.25 there was applause and rounds of congratulations, as if Everest itself had been conquered.

But if you peel back the layers you’ll discover that it’s as hollow of a victory on par with George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.

First off, this wage increase will improve the lives of nearly nobody. According to a community survey performed by HEDCO, large portions of businesses within the Metro area, including Hiawatha and Marion, are already paying its lowest wages somewhere between $10 to $11 an hour. So this policy won’t affect those employees. And when you factor in the amount of small businesses that are exempt from minimum wage laws, you’re looking at a truly minuscule percentage of Linn County residents that will benefit.

More critically, it will negatively impact legislative action. One of the things that I immediately discovered while sitting on the working group was the near unanimous consensus that the Iowa Legislature should be the one taking up the issue. But for those that were uncomfortable with the idea of the county taking it up, the undeniable fact was that county action could prompt the state to do something. As was the case in everything from the anti-smoking to non-discrimination ordinances. If at the end of the day, you ended up with Johnson, Linn and Polk counties with a plan to implement a minimum wage of $10.10 it applies to pressure and guidance on the legislature to act accordingly.

Now, all of that is undone. By setting the wage at $8.25 it makes Johnson County look like an outlier and sets the bar so low that even the most hardened dead-enders in the legislature could cross it. Giving them a convenient excuse to ignore the issue for another decade while it becomes harder for Iowa’s working families to afford food, tuition and health care.

And even though the recommendation calls for the Minimum Wage Working Group to reconvene in 2017, if Mayor Corbett could muscle through his own proposal this time, does anyone really believe that he won’t unilaterally stymie it next time?

Yeah, neither do I.

So now it’s time for Plan B. I’m going to call on the Linn County Board of Supervisors to reject the recommendation on the grounds that it’s both anemic and sabotages the long term goal of increasing Iowa’s minimum wage to something of meaning. Additionally, I’m going to call on local leaders to put increased pressure on their state counterparts to push for a $10.10 state minimum wage.

More than that, I ask you, the voters of Eastern Iowa, to make this issue paramount as Election Day approaches. Let your leaders know that you value candidates that will push for policies that help working Iowa families as opposed to ones who just want convenient fodder for their future campaign ads.

• Aime J. Wichtendahl is a member of the Hiawatha City Council and served on the Linn County Minimum Wage Working Group.

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