Demanding a healthy way to go back to work

The state’s “back to work” directive sends the wrong public health message at exactly the wrong time. And in clear defiance of Iowa and federal standards, it puts economic and physical security of workers at unnecessary risk.

Iowans want to get back to work. But — much more importantly — they want to get back to work under conditions that protect their health and safety, and the health and safety of their families and communities.

Over the past few weeks, we have questioned both the metrics and the lack of transparency behind the state’s decision — virtually alone among its peers — to stop short of a “shelter in place” order. Those concerns are now magnified by announcement this week that Governor is lifting social distancing measures in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties — this despite the fact that the caseload in Iowa continues to grow, that two of Iowa’s metros (Sioux Falls and Waterloo-Cedar Falls) are currently among the worst “hot spots” in the entire country, and that a sudden influx in social interactions, as the Iowa Medical Society warned earlier this week, “is all but certain to cause a spike in new COVID-19 patients and potentially overwhelm our health care system.”

Even more troubling is the clear evidence that public health policy is being driven by largely economic concerns. At the same moment as the Governor’s office announced the relaxation of restrictions, Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) chimed in with a chilling directive for unemployed Iowans — warning not only that “Iowans who refuse to return to work without good reason when recalled will lose eligibility to unemployment benefits,” but that those who continued to draw benefits in defiance of this directive faced “serious consequences for fraud, including fines, confinement and ineligibility for future unemployment benefits.” IWD even created a webform where employers are encouraged to “report employees who refuse to return to work without good reason or who quit their jobs.”

The IWD directive goes on to list a narrow range of “good cause” reasons for remaining unemployed — including a positive COVID test (for the worker or a member of her or his household), and the loss of child care or transportation to work because of COVID-19.

This directive — and the message it sends to working Iowans — is bad public health policy in a state where the most severe COVID outbreaks have occurred at workplaces. But, just as importantly, it offers a fundamentally flawed misreading of both Iowa law and the terms of the federal Families First and CARES Acts.

Iowa Code (871-Chapter 24.26 [96]) is crystal clear on this point, and offers a much broader set of conditions and options. A person who leaves a job due to “unsafe working conditions” or “intolerable or detrimental working conditions” cannot be considered to have voluntarily quit the position, which would make the worker ineligible for unemployment benefits. The determination of what is “unsafe” or “intolerable” depends upon both the workplace and the worker. A reasonable standard of safety, under these conditions, might be the guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control or the Occupational Health and Safety Administration for best practices — regarding social distancing and protective equipment — for workplaces. Yet, while IWD is directed to discourage claims and applications, there is no accompanying expectation that such safety guidelines are mandatory in Iowa workplaces.

Federal law offers the same basic assurance. For workers collecting regular UI, the federal “prevailing conditions of work” provision prohibits a state from denying UI to a worker who refuses work if the “the wages, hours, or other conditions of the work offered are substantially less favorable to the individual than those prevailing for similar work in the locality.” This provision covers “work rules, including health and safety rules” and situations where there has been a change in the existing conditions of work. According to the legislative history of the provision, it “requires a liberal construction in order to carry out the Congressional intent and the public policy embodied therein,” and the “the claimant should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

In turn, IWD’s directive flies in the face of the federal programs (and money) designed to both prop up Iowa’s unemployment system through the crisis and offer a more generous approach to eligibility. The Families First Act (passed in mid-March) offered emergency grants to states (including Iowa) for the administration of unemployment under the condition that states streamline their application process and “demonstrate policies to increase access to unemployment compensation.” The Act also requires a report, due at this time next year, detailing how progress on increased access.

The CARES Act (passed in late March) established three new unemployment programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for those workers (self-employed, gig workers) not conventionally eligible for unemployment insurance; Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), which adds $600 per week (through the end of July) to all unemployment claims paid under either regular UI or the PUA; and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a 13-week extension of state UI benefits.

The programs extended the logic of the Families First Act: States were expected to be expansive and generous in their approach to eligibility for unemployment insurance, making it both possible and economically-feasible for workers to shelter in place and avoid the risks posed in many settings by continued employment. Importantly, the CARES Act attached a list of COVID-related conditions (similar to that in the IWD directive) to the PUA program, but not to the expansion or extension of regular UI benefits.

The IWD’s “Back to Work” directive is bad public policy. On public health grounds, it sends exactly the wrong message at exactly the wrong time. And, in clear defiance of Iowa and federal standards for unemployment insurance eligibility, it puts the economic security and physical health of Iowa workers at dire and unnecessary risk. The Governor and Iowa Workforce Development should reverse course and protect our workers and their families.

Colin Gordon, senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project, is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Iowa unemployment claims keep rising

New unemployment claims continued to climb in the week ending April 11. Nationally, 5,245,000 workers filed new claims, bring the total to 22,634,000 new claims since March 21 (when the first COVID-19 layoffs starting hitting the books). As this week’s release concludes glumly: “This marks the highest level of seasonally adjusted insured unemployment in the history of the seasonally adjusted series.” In Iowa, we added 46,356 new claims, for a four-week total of 207,468.

We can now also begin to see the impact on national and state unemployment rates. The weekly claims data allows us to calculate the “insured unemployment rate” or the share of the labor force receiving unemployment benefits. In Iowa, the insured unemployment rate rose to 10.2 percent for the week ending April 4.

200416-IA_insured_unemployed

It is important to point out that this represents a fraction of the actual unemployment rate, which is the share of the labor force unemployed but looking for work (in Iowa, only about 40 percent of unemployed workers receive unemployment benefits).

The rates of insured unemployed in the states for the week ending April 4 range from 3.8 percent in South Dakota to 17.8 percent in Rhode Island. For a conservative estimate of the actual unemployment rates by state, double these numbers. Those estimates — putting most states in the range from 20 to 30 percent — are steeper than the unemployment rates of the Great Depression.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

 

Iowa’s employment apocalypse

As daunting as we may find the new unemployment claims numbers, they understate the true scale of the damage to the economy.

This morning, the Department of Labor released the count of new weekly claims for unemployment insurance, marking the second week of claims reflecting the employment impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The numbers are staggering, not just for their scope but for their suddenness. Most downturns in the business cycle occur gradually over a number of months; this spike has occurred in just a couple of weeks. These numbers are also the best metric we have in this unfolding crisis, providing us a near real-time measure that the April jobs report (with a March 12 reference point) will largely miss.

Nationally, new claims for the week ending March 21 were 3.28 million; last week we added another 6.65 million new claims — a total fully 10 times the previous weekly peak. In the week ending March 21, Iowa fielded 40,952 claims for unemployment insurance; in the week ending March 28, we added another 58,453. The total over the last two weeks — almost 100,000 new claims — is about the same number of new claims filed in the first four months of the Great Recession. The graph below plots weekly claims since 2007, the Great Recession indicated by the grey shading.

These numbers, of course, understate the true scale of the damage. Those ineligible for regular unemployment insurance — including the self-employed, gig workers, independent contractors, and new entrants to the labor market) do not show up in the claims data — although this will change once the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program kicks in. And the underemployed, those who are hanging on to whatever hours they can get, are also uncounted here.

And Iowa is not alone. In a longer post at Dissent, I plot all the state numbers: Off-the-charts rates of new claims over the past two weeks are evident in almost all states — but especially in those with a high share of leisure and hospitality workers, and those hard hit by the pandemic itself. California logged 186,000 new claims in the week ending March 21; and added almost five times as many (878,000) this week. New claims in Louisiana, as a telling measure of the mess many states are in, spiked on March 21 to the same level (over 70,000) as those made in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina — and this past week added another 97,000 claims.

The best numbers we have show that Iowa and the nation will see a lot of economic harm. It is essential to help all workers now.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa, and senior research consultant at the Iowa Policy Project. He has authored or co-authored IPP’s State of Working Iowa series and several other IPP reports on issues affecting working families, jobs, pay and benefits.

New solutions needed long term

Federal emergency legislation will make important unemployment insurance reforms on a temporary basis. Iowa — like other states — should make secure and equitable changes permanent.

Current estimates of job losses in the COVID-19 recession are hard to fathom. Even with a sizable stimulus, the national economy would shed nearly 14 million jobs by mid-summer; Iowa is projected to lose more than 140,000.

To make matters worse, as Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute underscores, this recession is “laser-targeted at low-wage, low-productivity, and low-hours jobs in service industries.”[1]

Our most vulnerable workers, in other words, will bear much of the burden: They do not have the option of working from home — a luxury enjoyed by two-thirds of workers in the top quarter of the earning distribution and by one-third of white workers, but by fewer than 1 in 10 workers in the bottom quarter of the distribution, 1 in 5 African-American workers and 1 in 6 Latinx workers. These vulnerable workers face both a much greater risk of unemployment as the service economy shuts down and a heightened risk of exposure to the virus if they keep working.

This is a scale of unemployment and social and economic dislocation that our existing programs are ill-equipped to handle. This demands a policy response — state and federal — unprecedented in its scale, and innovative in its efforts to reach those most affected. At the forefront of that policy response is both a dramatic expansion and a fundamental rethinking of unemployment insurance.

The first step here has already been taken by the federal government. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (passed March 18) pumped $1 billion into the administration of state unemployment insurance (UI) programs, in exchange for new state standards and conditions. In order to draw down these funds, states must improve their methods of notifying workers of their eligibility for benefits, provide multiple (not just online) methods of filing, provide prompt notice of the receipt of a claim, waive waiting periods for benefits, waive the requirement that recipients be actively searching for work, and ensure that employers are held blameless for COVID-19 layoffs. (Conventionally, UI is “experience-rated” so that employers with histories of layoffs are taxed at a higher rates).

As Peter Fisher pointed out in recent days, Iowa has met all these conditions. There is still a lot of work to be done — not just to meet the current crisis, but to ensure that our unemployment insurance system is recast for the 21st century and ready for the next crisis.

The first task is to make unemployment insurance accessible and available to more workers.

In Iowa, just 41 percent of unemployed workers ever see a benefit check. This is better than the national rate (28 percent), but it is still a scandal that well over half of the jobless are left in the cold. We should sustain the “Families First” Act’s commitment to raising the recipiency rate by streamlining the claims process. Federal and state unemployment law should revise our definition of “employee” to better capture the diversity of employment (including the self-employed, gig workers, and the like) in the modern economy. Too often, workers — cleaners, homecare workers, delivery drivers — are misclassified as “independent contractors” and shut out of basic social insurance programs like UI. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program embedded in the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to those (like the self-employed) otherwise ineligible for UI. This is a start — but the real fix would be to recast the law so that such workers are eligible in good times and bad.

By the same token, we should make permanent the more generous standard for a “good cause” separation, allowing workers — not just in pandemic conditions — to qualify for UI when they leave their jobs for compelling personal reasons. Iowa should make better use of its work sharing program, which allows workers partial compensation for reduced hours, while retaining their attachment to the labor force and their access to job-based benefits such as pensions and health insurance. And we should make benefits available to new entrants to the labor force — students graduating into a recession, returning caregivers, the formerly incarcerated — who deserve support even in the absence of a recent work history.

Second, we need to bolster the size and the duration of the basic benefit. Iowa’s current “replacement rate” is less than 50 percent of current wages — higher than the national average (38 percent) but still woefully insufficient to maintain basic expenses.[2] The logic here, of course, is that a low replacement rate will compel the unemployed to look for work. But low replacement rates (and short benefit windows) create enormous economic burdens and, by pressing workers back into the labor force, actually worsen re-employment prospects. As a baseline, UI benefits should be closer to two-thirds wages. And, for the duration of this crisis, they should be 100 percent. After all, places of employment are under order to close down, and those displaced have few options. This is why the pending stimulus bill bumps UI benefits by $600/week through the end of June.

Finally, we need to improve the funding of state unemployment insurance programs. The $1 billion boost to administration in the “Families First” legislation does not come close to backfilling cuts in federal aid since the 1980s. During the last recession, 36 state UI trust funds went broke — and most of those entered the current crisis with insufficient reserves. Iowa’s trust fund is in better shape than most, but all state funds will be exhausted once this crisis lifts. Under current law, the state only taxes the first $7,000 in earnings. This should be increased dramatically (Social Security taxes the first $137,700), so that revenues are sufficient to sustain UI administration, and pay extended and disaster benefits when needed.

Federal emergency legislation — some in place, some in the pipeline — will install many of these reforms on a temporary basis. But many of the problems being addressed — the accessibility of benefits for deserving workers, the low percentage of the unemployed who receive benefits, the insufficient level and duration of benefits — are broader problems with the UI system itself. Iowa should, of course, do what it can to qualify its workers for extended and enhanced benefits paid for with federal dollars. But it should also follow the lead of other states in making its UI system more secure and equitable on a permanent basis.

[1] Josh Bivens, Economic Policy Institute, “Coronavirus shock will likely claim 3 million jobs by summer,” March 17, 2020. https://www.epi.org/blog/coronavirus-shock-will-likely-claim-3-million-jobs-by-summer/

[2] The inadequacy of this replacement level is compounded by the fact that the benefits are still taxable, and yet they do not count as earnings for purposes of the Earned Income Tax Credit, creating an additional income loss for low wage workers receiving that tax credit.

Colin Gordon is a University of Iowa professor of history and is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He has authored several IPP reports since the organization began in 2001. Among these are the State of Working Iowa series, and the October 2019 report “Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity and Public Policy in the Midwest,” for Economic Analysis and Research Network members IPP, Policy Matters Ohio and COWS.

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).