Staff Editorial

Address wage theft in Iowa

Franz Dunsworth of Ainsworth poses for a portrait after a meeting at The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa in Io
Franz Dunsworth of Ainsworth poses for a portrait after a meeting at The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa in Iowa City on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

You’d think state lawmakers would be eager to address a crime affecting thousands of Iowans and robbing them of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Protecting Iowans from wrongdoing is usually a legislative priority.

But when the crime is wage theft, our Republican-controlled Legislature, normally happy to crackdown on lawbreakers, gets skittish.

Employers are shortchanging Iowa workers through myriad mistakes, omissions and schemes. They’re failing to pay benefits and misclassifying workers as contractors. Some are flatly failing to pay wages. Most of are low-income wage earners. The Iowa Policy Project estimates wage theft adds up to $600 million annually in Iowa.

New data shows Iowans filed more than 600 unpaid wage claims, with limited success, in 2019

But few workers file unpaid wage claims with the Iowa Divisions of Labor. It can take months or years before cases are settled. And most claimants receiving less than they’re owed, or nothing at all, according to The Gazette’s review of wage claim cases in 2019. More than $190,000 was recovered in 468 cases, only 21.3 percent of money owed.

One big problem is the Division of Labor has just three investigators, one hired recently, to deal with unpaid wage cases and child labor violations. Like so many agencies that serve the needs of working Iowans who rarely make big campaign donations or throw legislative receptions, the labor division is low on bucks and stretched thin.

Bills aimed at addressing wage theft, including new requirements and penalties for employers and measures making it easier for workers to claim lost wages, have stalled in the Legislature. Majority Republicans have stood with business interests who oppose the change instead of ripped off workers.

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It’s raw deal. But in a Legislature that refuses to raise Iowa’s minimum wage after more than a decade that barred counties from raising local wage floors, it’s hardly surprising. The majority is exploring another round of tax cuts benefiting primarily wealthy earners while doing far too little to help low-income workers who wrongfully lose hundreds of millions in wages and benefits.

It’s long past time to address this issue. It should be a bipartisan slam dunk. Victims of workplace malfeasance come from both political parties, or from no party at all. They deserve a state government that devotes adequate resources need to investigate these cases, and that holds employers accountable. Most of all, they deserve to be paid what they’re owed.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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