The state minimum wage in Iowa has been stuck at $7.25 for over nine years. But because of the actions of four county boards, a third of the private-sector workers in the state are now covered by a local minimum wage ordinance. About 65,000 workers in Polk, Linn and Johnson counties already benefit from an increase in their hourly wage to more than $10.00, or will in the next two years. Another 20,000 or more will benefit indirectly.
But those wage gains would all be erased under a bill filed in the Iowa House, HSB92. That bill would nullify all of the county ordinances; in a single stroke, it would drive down the wages of about 85,000 Iowa workers.
We know something about who those workers are. Over 40 percent work full time. Many are trying to raise a family on low wages. The vast majority are age 20 or over, and one in five are age 40 or above. They are more likely to be women than men. Many live in in poverty despite working full time.
The average low-wage worker in Polk County who would be affected by the Polk minimum wage, which rises to $10.75 in 2019, could look forward to a raise of over $2,700 a year. But not if that bill becomes law.
The beneficiaries of the county wage increases are not confined to the counties that passed them. Thousands of workers commute from surrounding counties, and they come home to spend those higher wages at local gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and other retail shops. They hire local plumbers and builders and electricians. In all, at least 12 counties in addition to Polk, Linn and Johnson will see a substantial increase in resident incomes and local purchases as a result of those three county minimum wages. Nullifying the wage increases will harm local economies, not just low-wage workers.
The bill goes beyond revoking the minimum wage laws passed recently by locally elected officials. It prevents any local elected body from enacting any ordinance in the future that is aimed at improving the lot of our low wage workforce. City councils and county boards would not be allowed to pass a law aimed at improving local wages, benefits, or sick leave policies, or reforming hiring or scheduling practices, regardless of how badly such measures are considered by elected officials to be needed, or how widely they are supported by local residents.
While some have hoped the state would grandfather in existing local ordinances, and would raise the state minimum by some amount, they stand to be disappointed. The bill leaves the state minimum at $7.25. This despite 70 percent support in Iowa for raising the minimum.
The bill reveals that the alleged concern over a “hodge-podge” of local ordinances was not the real issue. As we have argued elsewhere, the hodge-podge is a bogus argument. Labor markets are local, not statewide, and a local ordinance aimed at dealing with local market conditions makes sense. Nor is it plausible to argue that paying a different wage to different workers is a burden to businesses, who do that all the time.
Ironically, the bill would actually mandate that the current hodge-podge of minimum wages that exists in all of our border metro labor markets must remain. Quad City and Dubuque area businesses will still face an $8.25 minimum on the Illinois side. Council Bluffs and Sioux City businesses with employees on both sides of the river will still face $9.00 minimum wages in Nebraska. South Dakota’s minimum just went to $8.65, Missouri’s to $7.70. No increase in the minimum wage in an Iowa county to bring it into line with a bordering state will be allowed at the local level.
This bill, in sum, would help to guarantee that Iowa will remain a low-wage state.
 These estimates are based on an analysis of data from the American Community Survey by the Economic Policy Institute.