WASHINGTON — A belated Christmas gift is coming today to hundreds of thousands of low-wage Americans in 10 states across the country: A higher minimum wage.
But don’t expect to see the same in Iowa, where the state’s minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour isn’t going to budge. Last raised by state lawmakers in 2007, from $5.15 to $6.20, and again in 2008 to $7.25, Iowa’s rate has matched the federal rate ever since the federal rate became $7.25 in 2009.
The lack of an increase isn’t for lack of trying by Democratic legislators in Washington, D.C. Just ask Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who introduced a bill in July to raise the rate to $9.80 by 2014, and then establish annual increases. Harkin chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which plays a central role in such legislation.
In a divided Washington, Harkin’s bill has gone nowhere so far, although the new year will bring elevated Democratic numbers to both the House and Senate.
For now, Harkin isn’t giving up the fight, calling it a “modest, common-sense proposal” that would grant an automatic raise to 28 million American workers. He cites polls showing popular support for the idea and says it is overdue, arguing that the current minimum wage has 30 percent less buying power than it did at its peak of effectiveness in 1968.
“That’s 30 percent less money in the pockets of people who are working just as hard, doing some of the most difficult and important jobs in our country,” Harkin said. “We must restore the minimum wage to its historic value, to rebuild our economy and help minimum wage workers and their families succeed.”
The wage raises in nine of the 10 states were established by state laws that allow for incremental annual increases. The exception is Rhode Island, where a law signed in June will take effect. Overall, all 10 states will then have minimum wages higher than Iowa’s, with the highest being Washington at $9.19 per hour. The wage hikes range from 10 to 35 cents per hour, equating to an extra $200 to $500 per year for a minimum wage worker.
Under the federal minimum wage law — established during the Roosevelt Administration in 1938 — a full-time Iowa worker at minimum wage earns $290 per week, or about $15,000 per year. There are some exceptions: Tipped employees such as waiters or waitresses earn $4.35 per hour, for example, while new employees under 20 years of age can be paid as low as $4.25 per hour for their first 90 days of employment.
On the state level, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, is just as frustrated as Harkin. While Democrats will continue to control the state Senate in January by a slim majority of 26 seats in the 50-seat chamber, Republicans will continue to control the state House by a slight majority of 53 out of 100 seats.
Because of those numbers, Bolkcom is pessimistic about any minimum wage increase coming out of Des Moines until Democrats regain control. He notes that Democrats, including Gov. Chet Culver, were in power when Iowa’s minimum wage last raised at the state level in 2007.
“We have 25 percent of Iowa households living at poverty wages, and almost 40 percent of Iowa children live in homes where the parents are making poverty-level incomes,” Bolkcom said. “But with a divided state government, it’s unlikely. It’s not overly complicated; Republicans have been hostile to it for very many years. We just need to have Democrats making the decisions.”
State Rep. Greg Forristall is one such Republican. The incoming chair of the state House Labor Committee, Forristall says he wouldn’t support any minimum wage increase that comes before his panel.
Like most Republicans, Forristall says the minimum wage prevents businesses from hiring employees. He said the wage should be eliminated altogether because it discriminates against young people, among other reasons.
“If you have too high of a minimum wage, people will not hire young people for entry-level jobs,” Forristall told The Gazette. “Also, it tends to limit the number of hours that people can get ... I don’t think we should have minimum wage laws, for the same reason. It disrupts the economy, it limits the number of entry-level jobs, and it limits the experiences that young people can have in learning how to work.”
Forristall isn’t alone. Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate is likely to block Harkin’s bill as well as a companion bill by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., in the House. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said he has always considered minimum wage increase proposals in the past, but that the idea is unlikely to pass a Congress already distracted by other fiscal issues.
“At this point there isn’t (a proposal) that’s actually up for consideration,” Grassley said. “Even the Democratic leadership in the Senate has recognized we need to be focused on new job creation before adding cost burdens on small businesses.”