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.
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Iowa lawmakers repealed local minimum-wage increases in four counties that acted when state and federal leaders refused.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.
Even at higher wage levels, Iowans are falling short. As Gordon noted:
“(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. firstname.lastname@example.org