Government

Johnson County discusses 'symbolic' minimum wage increase

17-cent increase is based on Consumer Price Index data

(File photo) People gather during a rally in support of low-wage workers on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. A list of 150 Johnson County businesses who have pledged to honor the $10.10 minimum wage, which was voided by the state legislature this spring, was distributed at the rally. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) People gather during a rally in support of low-wage workers on the Ped Mall in Iowa City on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. A list of 150 Johnson County businesses who have pledged to honor the $10.10 minimum wage, which was voided by the state legislature this spring, was distributed at the rally. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Johnson County supervisors this week will consider a symbolic 17-cent increase to the local minimum wage.

With local control on minimum wage ordinances nixed last year by the Iowa Legislature, Johnson County’s minimum wage rule — currently at $10.10 an hour — is unenforceable. But local officials said they plan to stick to the pledge they made more than two years ago when the board voted to begin phased increases to the local minimum rate.

“It has no teeth, it would be purely a recommendation,” Supervisor Mike Carberry said of the proposed increase. “Obviously this is more symbolic than anything, but we said we were going to raise the minimum wage.”

The board will discuss the 17-cent increase — which is based on Consumer Price Index data — at Wednesday’s 9 a.m. work session at the county administration building, 913 S. Dubuque St. A formal vote could take place next week.

If approved by the board, the recommended increase would go into effect July 1.

Supervisors in 2015 passed a countywide minimum wage increase, which was phased in over time to $8.20 an hour in November 2015, to $9.15 in May 2016 and to $10.10 on Jan. 1 of last year.

However, as a handful of Iowa counties began to follow suit — including Linn and Polk — state lawmakers last year passed pre-emption rules, which eliminated a county’s ability to enforce a minimum wage higher than the state rate of $7.25 an hour.

Despite that, Johnson County supervisors say Consumer Price Index adjustments are planned to take place on an annual basis.

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Looking down the road, supervisors said they hope a day comes when local jurisdictions again have the ability to pass their own minimum-wage increases.

While the county cannot enforce its current minimum-wage ordinance, that hasn’t stopped several local businesses from pledging to do just that.

Opinion staff, guest columnists respond to minimum wage issues

In February, the Gazette showcased multiple perspectives on the Johnson County minimum wage ordinance in the opinion pages.

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Officials with the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa last year began asking Johnson County businesses to pledge to stick with the county’s higher rate.

Mazahir Salih, Iowa City Council member and community organizer Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said nearly 160 businesses have pledged support to the county’s $10.10 rate.

Salih said center officials continue to reach out to local businesses and said she is hopeful those already contacted continue to adhere to the symbolic increase.

“We hope that businesses will look into this and try to give those people a raise,” she said. “Hopefully a lot of businesses will continue to do that.”

Opinions on increases to the federal minimum wage remain split both locally and nationally. Opponents say wage increases should be driven by experience and education, and simply raising pay can hurt businesses. Supporters, however, say the minimum rate has failed to keep up with inflation and increases are necessary to address poverty.

In December, a study of Johnson County’s economic performance before and after the minimum-wage increase found that the growth rate of earnings for workers in the leisure and hospitality sector saw a nearly threefold increase between 2015 and 2017. The growth rate was lower in comparable communities, the study found.

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Meanwhile, tax filings for Johnson County businesses showed that the number of eating and drinking establishments, as well as sales at those businesses, remained relatively unchanged after the local wage increase.

“Personally, I believe that many businesses will follow or are already higher than that,” Supervisor Janelle Rettig said of the proposed $10.27 rate. “I think there are some industries where they believe in a race to the bottom in salaries makes sense.

“I think what they’ll find is more and more workers will refuse to work for those salaries and they’ll be forced to compete.”

To stay competitive and practice what they preach, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors over the past several years has gradually increased the starting minimum pay for all county employees, including poll workers and seasonal employees. This July, that rate will reach $14 an hour and the plan is to increase the county’s minimum starting pay to $15 next summer, Rettig said.

Dana Aschenbrenner, county finance director, said in an email that the county's pay increases for the current fiscal year affected about 280 part-time, temporary and seasonal employees and interns. Those positions include about four Secondary Roads employees, about 18 positions in the Conservation Department and more than 250 election poll workers, he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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