Government

Local officials concerned about 'far-reaching' Iowa House bill limiting local control over wages

It could make cities and counties follow state, fed rules on employment, hiring

(FILE PHOTO) Nathan Kieso of Coralville holds a sign advocating for an increased minimum wage as community members line up to speak at a Johnson County Supervisors Public Input Session in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015.  (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
(FILE PHOTO) Nathan Kieso of Coralville holds a sign advocating for an increased minimum wage as community members line up to speak at a Johnson County Supervisors Public Input Session in Iowa City on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

While a House bill has been described by business leaders as a means of unifying Iowa wage and employment rules, some local officials are concerned the bill could set back civil rights protections.

The bill, which passed the House Local Government Committee Thursday on a 12-to-9 party-line vote, could force city and county governments to follow federal or state rules on employment conditions such as employee wages, hiring practices and benefits and scheduling, said Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig.

“This is a very far-reaching and very scary bill that the people of Iowa should be appalled by,” Rettig said. “It was either poorly written or it is written by a genius who knows exactly what it would do — it would gut local government.”

Rettig said the use of “federal or state” also raises concerns as the two entities have considerable differences regarding employee civil rights rules, which the bill also addresses.

For example, local Johnson County ordinances — and the state of Iowa — prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the federal government does not.

“Will that mean Iowa City and the county cannot exceed federal law? It’s the lowest common denominator,” she said. “It’s perfectly legal on a federal basis to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The bill’s intent is to take away city and county authority to pass a minimum wage higher than the state’s $7.25 rate. If signed into law, it would eliminate the state’s four countywide minimum wage ordinances, including Johnson County’s now $10.10 an hour wage, the first of its kind in the state.

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In Cedar Rapids, the city’s civil rights ordinance includes some protections above and beyond those provided in state law, including association, which protects anyone from being terminated by an employer based on any associated person’s sexual orientation, religion, disability, national origin or any other protected class.

A resident’s marital status and familial status also is protected under the city’s ordinance, but not the state’s civil rights rules.

In addition, while state rule protects against age discrimination for anyone older than 40 years old, the Cedar Rapids ordinance covers anyone older than 18 years.

LaSheila Yates, executive director with the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, said losing the city’s ordinance would cost residents those extra protections not provided by the state.

“We’d like to continue to be able to offer those protections,” she said.

Similar to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City also does not discriminate based on marital status of employees. For housing, the city’s ordinance has protections for age, marital status, presence or absence of dependents and public assistance source of income.

Iowa City’s ordinance also includes protections for age and marital status in regard to education, while the state does not.

Veronica Fowler, communications director with American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the organization is not taking a stance on the home-rule elements in the House bill. But it is opposed to any restrictions to local civil rights ordinances.

“Our objection would be to the restriction on cities to protect civil rights locally,” Fowler said. “Those local protections are an important means available to cities that they use to protect their residents from discrimination, and they need to be preserved.”

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She added that local governments know best the civil rights issues of their communities and allow elected officials to craft ordinances to fit the needs of their residents.

“Sometimes there are unique situations or situations prevalent in a community that a city wants to address, and we feel that certainly they should be able to protect their residents from discrimination,” Fowler said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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