DES MOINES — Senate Democrats pushed ahead Wednesday on measures to raise Iowa’s minimum wage and to provide more protections for workers against wage theft by unscrupulous employees, but a key backer expressed pessimism that either measure would see action this year by Republicans who control the Iowa House.
A measure that would boost the state’s minimum wage to $8.75 an hour by July 1, 2016 — providing a 75-cent hourly raise to the current $7.25 minimum July 1 and a second 75-cent jump one year later — passed the Senate Labor and Business Relations committee by an 8-3 margin with Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, joining seven Democrats in support.
Majority Democrats also incorporated Bertrand’s suggested changes in a wage theft bill before passing an amended version on a 7-4 party-line vote.
The Democratic proposal to help protect workers from wage theft would require employers to keep records of terms of employment and protect co-workers who testify against employers from retaliation. The amended language would increase enforcement within Iowa Workforce Development and create a navigator to assist people who believe they have been wronged.
Bertrand said he was glad to see Democrats accepted his suggestions to boost awareness, access and enforcement, but he opposed the overall measure because he felt it still would “treat all businesses as if they had violated the law” and looked more like a political statement rather than a policy change.
However, Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, the committee’s chairman, said the message he got from Wednesday’s votes was that Republicans likely will oppose both measures, and he was skeptical either would be considered by the GOP-led House.
“I don’t think working people get much support from the Republican Party,” Bisignano said after Wednesday’s meeting. “They don’t support workers in this state that are struggling every day.”
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Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he did not vote for the minimum wage bill because he worried about “unintended consequences” the change might have on high school and college students working minimum-wage jobs or seniors on fixed incomes.
“We can have this debate all we want, but if we really want to address the issue of poverty, this is not the way to do it. This bill will not bring a single person out of poverty,” said Whitver, who preferred putting the focus on policy changes that will lead to high-wage, high-skill jobs.
Bertrand disagreed with Bisignano’s contention it was a forgone conclusion that a minimum-wage bill will stall, saying “Let’s wait and see. I don’t think Speaker (Kraig) Paulsen has said no.”
A spokeswoman for the House speaker said Wednesday House Republicans haven’t yet discussed the Senate proposal.