Common good vs. common blame

When leaders defy a “common good” standard in decisions, the ultimate price becomes a “common blame,” because government actions represent us all, even if they do not serve us all.

The Chris Godfrey case is only the latest example of a state leadership that — with no meaningful check on its authority — will do whatever it wants regardless of the consequences. They can, so they will.

And, for now, a jury has given the taxpayers of Iowa the consequences: a $1.5 million judgment against the state because of then-Governor Terry Branstad’s discrimination against a gay state official. Godfrey was state workers’ compensation commissioner when Branstad pressured him to resign, then cut his pay when Godfrey refused.

Branstad maintains the decision had nothing to do with Godfrey being gay. A jury disagreed. Either way, the totality of the case is disturbing.

When our state leaders defy a “common good” standard in making decisions, the ultimate pushback or price becomes a “common blame,” because the government actions represent us all, even if they do not serve us all.

We already see it in the issues surrounding Iowa’s poor water quality and the refusal of Iowa’s leaders to use public policy effectively to correct it. The voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not a strategy at all, but rather our imaginary friend who assures us we’ll do the right thing. Or our farmers will. Someday. But no one will make either us, or farmers, do the right thing unless already inclined to do so.

We see it when exorbitant tax breaks or subsidies go to corporations without a discernible return to the public, while services that benefit not only the corporations but all Iowans — such as a strong PK-12 and post-secondary education system — are held back or even cut.

And we see it here, in the Godfrey case. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Todd Dorman pointed out in a column today:

The jury found Branstad was in the wrong. Now, of course, if the verdict stands, it will be you and I who likely pay the freight. Maybe those captains of industry Branstad tried so hard to please by bullying Godfrey could pass the hat.
And of course those “captains of industry” would have to pass the hat if they are to contribute, because we don’t tax them enough. We keep giving away subsidies and tax breaks like candy.

But this is about more than taxes. As our senior research consultant, Colin Gordon, noted in a blog yesterday, Branstad’s own defense — effectively that he did not discriminate against Godfrey but wanted him out because of what he had heard from business owners — is a problem in itself. It is something that Iowa’s leaders need to recognize as a problem and if they cannot, the voters need to. The state is not here as a service center for corporations, but to serve all Iowans. When individual Iowans are injured on the job, they need someone enforcing the law, as Godfrey was doing.

By his own admission, Governor Branstad was taking his cues from his business cronies. And if you read the transcript of his deposition in the case under questioning by attorney Roxanne Conlin, you can see he didn’t investigate beyond the anecdotal whining he was hearing from selected business people.

And Branstad won’t be held accountable for it. The people of Iowa will be, in our common blame.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Price of discrimination, business influence

Just as damning as our former governor’s pattern of discrimination is the defense he offered, that he targeted the workers’ compensation commissioner because business interests told him he had to go.

When Terry Branstad returned to the Governor’s Office in 2011, one of his first acts was to ask for the resignation of Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, who is openly gay. When Godfrey declined to resign, Branstad slashed his salary to $73,250 — a pay cut of nearly $40,000, which left Godfrey earning the statutory minimum for the job.

In 2012, Godfrey sued, claiming that Branstad had discriminated against him based on his sexual orientation. On July 15, a Polk County jury agreed — awarding Godfrey $1.5 million in damages.[1] At trial, Branstad claimed he had “always treated everyone, gay or straight, with respect and dignity,” but the jury determined the evidence pointed strongly in the other direction — and now Iowa taxpayers are paying the price.

Just as damning as our former governor’s pattern of discrimination is the defense he offered at trial, and in his pre-trial deposition.[2] By his account, Branstad took aim at Godfrey not because his workers’ compensation commissioner was gay, but because the Iowa business community — and especially meatpacking interests — told him that Godfrey had to go.

So, we have a jury calling out discrimination at the highest level of Iowa government, and effectively an admission from the former governor that the business lobby was calling the shots on a critical issue.

In his November 2014 deposition, Branstad details meetings in 2010 with Eldin and Regina Roth of Beef Products Inc (BPI) who “said they were concerned about the direction that the workers’ comp commission is going in Iowa, that it was driving up the costs of their businesses.” In July 2011, Branstad solicited a long memo from Tyson Foods[3] that offered the Governor a blow-by-blow account of “the negative impact [Godfrey’s] decisions have on Iowa Employers.”

When Branstad took office in 2011, his treatment of Godfrey was callous, petty and discriminatory. When Republicans achieved “trifecta” control of the Statehouse in 2017, the target shifted from the commissioner to the entire workers’ compensation system. At stake here was not just Godfrey’s job but — as we detailed in our report last year on the recent changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation system[4]a fundamental shift in responsibility and risk for workplace injuries.

[1] Stephen Gruber-Miller, The Des Moines Register, July 15, 2019. https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2019/07/15/terry-branstad-gay-official-discrimination-chris-godfrey-workers-compensation-commissioner-verdict/1714302001/

[2] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2644880-Gov-Terry-Branstad-deposition.html

[3] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2644850-Tyson-Foods-Talking-Points-for-Gov-Terry-Branstad.html
[4] Emily Schott, Matthew Glasson and Colin Gordon, The Iowa Policy Project, “Giving Workers the Cold Shoulder: Shifting the Risk Under Iowa’s Workers’ Compensation Law.” http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180920-workers_comp.pdf

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project (IPP). A professor of history at the University of Iowa, he is the author of IPP’s long-running State of Working Iowa analysis. Contact: cgordonipp@gmail.com

Iowa women: Still working for less

Wage trends for all workers mask important demographic differences, as we show in our Wage section of the State of Working Iowa website. New data since that update show a gap remains between wages for men and women. Over almost four decades that gap has narrowed — partly due to lower wages for men — but in 2018 it widened, from 15 cents to 21 cents on the dollar.

For men, real wages began falling for low-wage men in the mid-1970s, and this spread across all but the highest percentiles through 1979-1989 and through the first half of the 1990s (1989-1995).

Some relief in the late 1990s is short-lived: Wage growth grinds to a halt in 2000–2007 and then retreats — for all but highest earners — from 2007–2018. Iowa women workers, by contrast, do relatively well: All but the lowest wage decile see impressive wage gains across the full 1979-2016 era. Low-wage women lost a lot of ground in the 1980s, but did better than their male peers during the 1990s boom.

The gender wage gap has narrowed substantially, but there also is a ways to go toward equal pay: In 1979, women made 62 cents for every dollar earned by men; today they earn 79 cents. The long-term narrowing of that gap reflects, in about equal measure, the gains made by women over that era, and the losses suffered by men.

By Colin Gordon, Senior Research Consultant for the Iowa Policy Project, and lead author of IPP’s State of Working Iowa series.

Long way to King’s goal

Persistent segregation, plus deindustrialization and declining in job quality across the region, has created stark and sustained obstacles to equal opportunity and equal outcomes.

As we mark Martin Luther King Day, it is also worth underscoring just how far we need to travel — in Iowa and in the nation — to achieve Dr. King’s aspirations of true and substantive racial equality.

Nationally, the last half-century has seen some progress in African-American educational attainment, wages, and incomes. But gains on other fronts — including home ownership, wealth, unemployment, and incarceration — have been elusive.

Regrettably, Iowa (and its upper Midwestern neighbors) remain among the starkest settings for racial inequality across a number of dimensions. Historically, Midwestern and rustbelt metropolitan areas have always been among the segregated places to live. Indeed black-white segregation in Iowa’s metro areas has persisted across the last generation and — in the Iowa City metro — has actually worsened since 1990. This, coupled, with the sustained impact of deindustrialization and declining in job quality across the region, has created stark and sustained obstacles to equal opportunity and equal outcomes.

The result is a jarring juxtaposition: While Midwestern metros (Des Moines, Madison, Minneapolis) typically crowd the “best places to live” lists, they are also among the very worst places to live for African-Americans. In one recent analysis, ranking the states by an index of racial inequality, Iowa and its immediate neighbors (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Illinois) were the top (worst) five states.

Below, I have calculated Iowa’s position (rank among the states) across five key dimensions. For poverty, income, unemployment, and homeowners I used the Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey (pooling five years of data, given the size of the African-American sample in Iowa, provides a more reliable estimate); for rates of incarceration, I rely on the ongoing work of the Sentencing Project.

Here are the results:

1.  Although Iowa’s unemployment rate is low, the white-black gap is persistent. At 7.2 percent, the African-American unemployment rate is more than double the rate (3.2 percent) for white Iowans (2013-17). We are one of 16 states to reach this dubious threshold; the ratio of white-to-black employment in Iowa is the eighth worst in the country.

2.  African-American household median income in Iowa ($30,505) is barely half white household income. On this measure, we rank seventh worst in the country.

3.  On poverty, the disparity is even starker. The African-American poverty rate in Iowa (34.1 percent) is more than triple the white poverty rate (10.0 percent). We rank sixth worst in the country.

4.  Almost three quarters (74.1 percent) of white Iowan heads of households own their homes, almost triple the rate (27 percent) for black heads of household. On this metric, Iowa has the seventh worst disparity in the country.

5.  One of every 17 black men in Iowa are in prison, a rate of incarceration that is the third worst (behind only Vermont and Oklahoma) in the country. The ratio of black-white incarceration in Iowa is 11.1: 1 (for every white adult in prison there are 11.1 black adults in prison), again ranking third worst (behind Wisconsin and New Jersey).

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. A professor of history at the University of Iowa, Gordon also has authored IPP’s State of Working Iowa reports. Contact: cgordonipp@gmail.com

Labor Day: Celebrating what was, and what could be

This Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen in the future, reversing current trends against working families.

As always, Labor Day is a day to celebrate Americans’ work ethic and spirit — things that hold promise for better times ahead.

But it is not a time to celebrate what has been happening in Iowa.

A look at the landscape for working families shows this Labor Day could be the low-road benchmark for celebrations of improvements to be seen a year, two years, maybe 10 years from now.

Iowa lawmakers repealed local minimum-wage increases in four counties that acted when state and federal leaders refused. Iowa’s minimum wage is a measly $7.25 an hour and has been held there for 10 1/2 years; some 400,000 workers — and their families — could gain with a raise to $12. (IPP report, 2016) Twenty-nine other states have acted, including all but two of Iowa’s neighbors.

In the middle, Iowa as usual lags the region and the nation, as IPP Senior Research Consultant Colin Gordon showed in a wage update for The State of Working Iowa.

Even at higher wage levels, Iowans are falling short. As Gordon noted:

Colin Gordon

“(T)he wage structure in Iowa is more compressed than it is nationally or in the Midwest. Low-wage workers in Iowa make about the same as low-wage workers everywhere else, but at the higher wages, Iowa workers fall further and further behind. Higher wage jobs are scarcer in Iowa than in most states. And wages in many professions — such as nursing or teaching — trail national and regional peers by wide margins.

“The key point here is not just that wages have stagnated, but they have done so over an era in which the productivity and educational attainment of Iowa workers have improved dramatically.”

If the wage levels weren’t lagging enough already, policy makers have utterly failed Iowa workers by refusing to assure that wages owed are actually paid. Wage theft — refusing to pay wages owed, or violating overtime and employee classification rules — is winked at by a state system that devotes too few resources to enforcement. Lawmakers have refused to act.

Lawmakers deliberately smacked working people with significant legislation in the last General Assembly in at least two other areas:

•   They curtailed collective bargaining rights of public employees, making it tougher for them to organize, and tougher for them to negotiate. In the arena where the state, counties, cities and schools should be leading by example on how to treat employees, the Legislature has chosen to push Iowa toward a race to the bottom. And make no mistake about the impact on the economy: Public-sector jobs are 1 in 6 of all jobs in the state.

•   They also passed legislation to erode workers’ protection and financial security long provided through Iowa’s workers’ compensation law. A study of the effects of one change, reclassifying shoulder injuries, found that the typical worker with such an injury could expect to receive 75 percent less under the new rules.

On top of these, we see the University of Iowa unilaterally acting to eliminate, or eliminate funding for, its own Labor Center that serves thousands and helps Iowans understand what rights they have in the workplace.

And we can count on a continuing assault on Iowa’s strong and accountable public employees’ retirement plans — not to help employees or actually save money, but to feed the ideological drive against public services that is illustrated in examples above. How better to damage those services than to lessen the attraction of jobs that provide them?

Celebrate Labor Day for the people who work to make our nation great. Keep in mind throughout the day that forces are trying to undermine the security of working families — and that Iowans can come together behind policies to support all.

Think of how much better that Labor Day burger off the grill will taste — in some future year — with a side of responsible minimum wage and workplace protection laws, topped off with a stronger economy that will result as more Americans prosper.

Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

 

A University ‘for’ Iowa, or just ‘in’ Iowa

If the University of Iowa is serious about its strategic plan, it would recognize that jewels like the Labor Center demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution.

There are lots of good reasons not to shutter the University of Iowa’s Labor Center.

For starters, any such move would be rash, shortsighted, and wasteful. The Labor Center’s core continuing education mission teaches labor leaders about workers’ rights, about civil rights in the workplace, and about occupational health and safety. Those who have benefited from these courses over the years credit the Labor Center with helping them — and their local unions — sustain workplaces which are safer and more equitable.

For the pittance in state funds (about $500,000) devoted to the Center, the returns the state — in fewer harassment claims, fewer workers’ compensation settlements, fewer cases of wage theft — are incalculable.  Closing the Labor Center, in this respect, is like taking down the stoplights at an intersection: you could claim savings in signage and electricity as a result, but at what cost?

In turn, the threat to the future of the Labor Center — the only academic center in the Regents system devoted to work and workers in Iowa — sends a terrible message to the state’s working families. In an era of spiraling inequality, when the combination of stagnant incomes and rising tuition are putting a college education increasingly out of reach, do we really want to harden the perception that the state’s universities only serve the interests of the upper classes? There are about 1.6 million wage earners in Iowa, a quarter of whom do not earn a wage sufficient to climb above the poverty line.  These Iowans — as citizens, voters, taxpayers, and parents — should know that the state’s public institutions are for them too.

And finally, the University’s claim that the Labor Center is peripheral to its academic mission is simply not true. The University’s current strategic plan sits on three pillars: student success, research, and engagement. The Labor Center contributes on all of these fronts, and especially on engagement and outreach to the rest of the state. On this score, the strategic plan argues that the University should “enhance UI’s statewide visibility and increase access to UI expertise,” “support the translation of intellectual work into applications to enhance economic development,” and “create lifelong learning opportunities that broaden UI’s reach across Iowa.”

The Labor Center does all of this and more. It is one of the few arms of the University with a sustained and serious “extension” mission to the rest of the state. If the University is serious about its strategic plan, and about proving its value to those outside Johnson County, its best option is to nurture such forms of engagement with off-campus Iowa constituencies rather than abandon them. It is jewels like the Labor Center that demonstrate a commitment to the mission of a flagship public institution; which demonstrate that UI can and should be The University FOR Iowa and not just a University IN Iowa. 

Colin Gordon is the F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa and a senior research consultant with the Iowa Policy Project. He is the recipient of the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (2016) and the UI’s Distinguished Achievement in Publicly-Engaged Research Award (2015).

How to steal $110 million from Iowa workers

No artifice of “regulatory relief” or concern for untipped workers can justify this theft.

In most states, tipped workers are paid a subminimum “tipped wage.” In Iowa the tipped wage is $4.35/hr. The gap between the tipped wage and the minimum wage (in Iowa, $7.25-$4.35 or $2.90) is called the “tip credit.” Tips are first used to satisfy this credit (bringing the hourly wage to the minimum); once the credit is satisfied, tips are an uneven addition.

Our state and national labor laws have long operated under the assumption that tips earned by waitresses or bartenders or manicurists belong to the worker who earned them. In 2011, the federal Department of Labor (DOL) clarified and codified this rule, underscoring that, regardless of the jurisdiction or local wage, “a tip is the sole property of the tipped employee.”

In December of last year, the Trump Administration announced its attention to repeal this rule (after already announcing its intention to cease enforcement of the rule last July). Under the new regime, employers of tipped workers could retain any tips in excess of those needed to satisfy the tip credit. Forcing tipped workers to pool or kick back tips to the house has always been considered a form of wage theft. The new rule would make this wage theft perfectly legal.

The new rule, the brainchild of the National Restaurant Association, rests on the thin logic that employers would share tips with “back of the house” staff. But nothing in the rule requires them to do so, and research on wage theft in various jurisdictions suggests that tip stealing by management is already widespread. Indeed, the DOL punctured its own logic with an internal study finding that the rule would result in huge losses to tipped staff, and then — in defiance of any semblance of good government and transparency — buried the study.

Fortunately, the Economic Policy Institute (whose crack research staff includes the DOL’s former chief economist) has stepped in with its own look at the dismal impact of this rule. Using a combination of W-2 (tax) and industry data, EPI estimates a base of about $36.4 billion annually in tips (a conservative estimate, since a substantial share of tips go unreported as income). Since some of that $36 billion must be used to satisfy the tip credit, the share of that “at risk” is a little lower, about $26 billion.

Grade school economics, in turn, would suggest that almost all of that $26 billion would be pocketed by employers: There is no need or incentive, after all, to share tip revenues with bussers and dishwashers, whose wages (and willingness to work) are already established by local labor markets. Fortunately, many state labor laws offer further protection or regulations of tipped wages that would not be affected or pre-empted by the new federal rule. This brings the take of this heist down to just under $6 billion. In Iowa alone (where no state laws supplement federal rules and standards on tipped work), the annual loss would be about $110 million.

Looking at this on a smaller scale drives home the avarice and the injustice. Consider Francesca, a waitress at a mid-price, full service restaurant. Her base wage is $4.35. On a typical four-hour dinner shift, she serves eight tables. The average bill for those tables is $25.00, and the average tip is 15 percent or $3.75 — making her take home pay $47.40 ($17.40 in base wages and $30 in tips), or just under $12/hour. Under the new rule, Francesca would keep only enough of that $30 in tips to bring her wage — the base wage plus the tip credit — to the federal and Iowa minimum wage of $7.25. She takes home $29. If we follow EPI’s assumption, about half of the remaining tips would go to other employees, and about half would go in the employer’s pocket.

No artifice of “regulatory relief” or concern for untipped workers can justify this theft. The new rule, as Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project notes, is “nothing more than robber barons masquerading as Robin Hood.”

Colin Gordon, professor of history at the University of Iowa, is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He has authored or co-authored many IPP reports on jobs, wages and wage theft issues including The State of Working Iowa. cgordonipp@gmail.com

More from IPP on wage theft:
Wage Theft in Iowa by Colin Gordon, Matthew Glasson, Jennifer Sherer and Robin Clark-Bennett, August 2012
Stolen Chances: Low-Wage Work and Wage Theft in Iowa by Colin Gordon, September 2015