Nation & World

Iowa is among 25 states that blocks municipalities from hiking pay

Why nearly 350,000 workers aren't seeing wage increases

A Panama City disposal and janitorial service got caught underpaying 46 janitors doing federal contract work at Tyndall Air Force Base.  (Dreamstime/TNS)
A Panama City disposal and janitorial service got caught underpaying 46 janitors doing federal contract work at Tyndall Air Force Base. (Dreamstime/TNS)

For most of her 13 years working the grill and cash register at McDonald’s, Bettie Douglas earned just over $7 an hour. Then in 2017, the St. Louis grandmother’s hourly pay rose to $10 after the city increased its minimum wage.

But the Missouri legislature soon invalidated the local ordinance to raise St. Louis’ minimum wage following opposition from business groups, despite the state Supreme Court having already upheld the increase.

Pay for tens of thousands of low-wage workers in St. Louis reverted to the state’s then minimum of $7.70 an hour.

Missouri, along with Iowa, are among 25 states that expressly block local municipalities from adopting their own minimum wage laws. State legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin have also invalidated local wage increases, costing nearly 350,000 workers a total of $1.5 billion per year, according to a new study by the National Employment Law Project that quantifies for the first time the economic effect of prohibiting local wage increases.

State laws preempting or nullifying higher local wages perpetuate economic inequality in American cities, hurting women and minority workers who are disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs, researchers say.

More than 60 percent of affected workers in St. Louis, Birmingham and Miami Beach are people of color, according to the study.

“Missouri was one of the most egregious examples of an overwhelmingly white legislature undoing the will of local communities,” said Laura Huizar, a senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project and co-author of the report.

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“Preemption has been used as a tool to undermine higher wages, protect corporate profits, and cancel the voices of blacks and Latinos.”

On average, workers in the 12 municipalities where wage increases were overturned by state legislatures are losing almost $4,100 individually per year, the study found. Between 20 percent and 71 percent of the affected workers in these cities and counties live below the federal poverty line.

Despite the strong economy and historically low unemployment rates, real wages for the majority of workers have flatlined over the past decade.

Since the “Fight for $15” minimum wage movement began in 2012, more than 40 cities and counties have passed laws raising the local minimum wage — leading to a corporate-fueled backlash in many state legislatures, Huizar said.

Minimum wage increases in 20 municipalities, including Washington, D.C., and two states went into effect July 1.

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