Labor Day 2017: Disappointing trends for Iowa working families

A higher minimum wage, union representation and investments in education produce growth and productivity in local and state economies that tax cuts never deliver.

Editor’s Note: This piece by Colin Gordon, senior research consultant at the Iowa Policy Project, ran as a guest opinion in The Des Moines Register.

Hear Colin Gordon’s Sept. 7 interview on Michael Devine’s “Devine Intervention program on KVFD-AM 1400 Fort Dodge.

Labor Day is always a good time to take stock of the state of working Iowa. Patterns of employment, job creation, and wage and income growth across the Iowa economy are telling — and disappointing.

This long-term economic pattern combines with the most disheartening legislative changes for working families in the lifetimes of most Iowans. The year 2017 poses great challenges to Iowans’ economic security, let alone opportunity for those coming to, serving in or retiring from the job market.

The Iowa Policy Project’s upcoming State of Working Iowa review finds the following:

•   Recovery is elusive. The Great Recession is over, but the national and Iowa economies are still struggling to recover. While Iowa regained its pre-recession threshold of jobs in June 2013, our economy and population have continued to grow — leaving us a jobs deficit of 34,000 jobs as of July.

While the unemployment rate has come back down to a healthy 3.2 percent, the labor force participation rate is still well below its peak and rates of underemployment and long-term unemployment are still higher than they were before the financial crisis hit in 2007.

•   Despite job gains, we have fewer good jobs. Counting jobs lost or added is important, but so is the quality of those jobs. Since the 1970s, Iowa has shed many good jobs in sectors like manufacturing, and replaced too many of them with lower-wage service jobs.

But the real damage has been done by the collapse of security and job quality within sectors and occupations. We have traded good jobs for bad jobs, due to economic shifts, loss of union representation, lax enforcement of labor standards, and alarming growth in contingent work relationships.

•   We are treading water. Wage growth is anemic for all but the highest earners, underscoring both low job quality. In Iowa, the median wage in inflation adjusted dollars inched up less than 1 percent, across the last generation (since 1979).

The constraints on wage growth are mostly political: a weak commitment to full employment, the declining real value of the minimum wage, and loss of voice and bargaining power with the loss of union representation.

•   We are choosing the wrong policies at the wrong time. The last year in state and national politics has only made things worse. The Trump Administration has moved to roll back both the substance and enforcement of key labor standards, and trade, tax, and financial policies have lavished the economy’s rewards on the highest earners. In Iowa, the legislative fusillade of the last session took aim at precisely the policies — including public sector collective bargaining and local minimum wage initiatives — that were helping to contain the damage.

Recent experience across the states offers us a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. A higher minimum wage lifts families out of poverty with no decrease in employment or economic growth. Union representation and collective bargaining offer a robust defense against income inequality and the erosion of job quality. Investments in education produce growth and productivity in local and state economies that tax cuts never deliver.

When states ignore these facts — as Kansas and Wisconsin have — they undermine the prosperity, security and mobility of their citizens.

The high road to economic growth and worker security is the better course for Iowa.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He is the author of reports in IPP’s “State of Working Iowa” series. Contact: cgordonipp@gmail.com.

 

Time to address wage theft in Iowa

Annually, wage theft deprives low-wage Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, deprives state and local government of revenue, and puts law-abiding businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Every year, far too many Iowans experience “wage theft” when they are cheated out of wages they have earned. Some are not paid for all of the hours they actually worked; some are paid “off the books” at less than the legally mandated minimum wage; some earn tips they do not get to keep; some are not paid at the legally mandated rate for overtime; some leave a job or contract arrangement and never receive their final paycheck.

What is Wage Theft?

Wage theft occurs whenever a worker is robbed of legally owed wages because an employer breaks the law or a contract. Common forms of wage theft include:

•   Nonpayment of wages: An employer fails to pay workers for some or all hours of work performed, or fails to pay workers in a timely fashion.

•   Underpayment of wages: An employer pays workers less than they were promised or less than they are legally owed under state or federal minimum wage or overtime statutes.

•   Tipped job violations: An employer pays tipped employees less than the legally mandated minimum wage for tipped jobs, forces tips to be “shared” with managers or steals workers’ tips.

•   Deduction violations: An employer diminishes workers’ pay by making unauthorized or illegal deductions from paychecks

•   Misclassification of employees: An employer falsely labels an employee as an “independent contractor” in order to avoid obligations to pay minimum wage and overtime (along with a host of other employment laws, and unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and income tax payments). The “independent contractor” exemption is not meant to apply to those providing services under the direction and control of others; one example of misclassification would be to call a cashier a “salaried manager” to avoid the overtime provisions of federal law.

Annually, wage theft deprives low-wage Iowa workers of an estimated $600 million, deprives state and local government of revenue, and puts law-abiding businesses at a competitive disadvantage. A new report for the Iowa Policy Project estimates the impact of wage theft in Iowa, assesses the current state of public policy and enforcement systems intended to prevent wage theft, and surveys effective models for addressing the problem so that communities, state agencies, and policymakers in Iowa can begin to address it.

Posted by Jennifer Sherer
Director, University of Iowa Labor Center
President, Iowa Policy Project board of directors

Political debate on steroids strikes out

“Many, it is clear, do not want good information whenever it comes to them, especially if they don’t want to like the source.”

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The yellowed copy of The Des Moines Register from April 5, 1974, is one of my treasures.

First Time at Bat—Aaron Ties Ruth’s Record” the paper exclaims, beneath a banner headline in all caps: “PUBLIC BARGAINING BILL IS VOTED.”

Truth to tell, I kept the paper because of the Hank Aaron story. Little did I realize that, 37 years later, I’d see a connection between that story and the one trumpeted above it — how times have changed. Then, you didn’t have to worry about whether home-run kings were on steroids, let alone political discussions. Now, both are suspect.

The Iowa Policy Project has worked hard to correct the latter, and today put out an important report that knocks down myths about public employee pay and benefits. These myths feed political narratives that are built on foundations of polling data, marketing and talking points, with facts entering the discussion only where convenient. They defy a more honest approach, of gathering facts and then making a determination of what they show.

The 1974 Register story about the bargaining debate is interesting. It shows a bipartisan decision under a Legislature and Governor of one-party control — Republican — agreeing on a public-employee bargaining system that has stood the test of time. Neither side on a bargaining table really liked it then or now, but it reflected some sense of balance. Now, it is being challenged, and thrown into the mix of the discussion is the public employee pay mythology.

Where is the balance we could find four decades ago? Too many in politics today want their thumb on the scale, and too many are used to seeing it — so much that good research starts out tainted, just like a clean 420-foot home run may be. IPP’s report by Andrew Cannon today is an example; show people the data, and some will dismiss it without reading it because the headline doesn’t fit the world view they’ve bought into.

One commenter on the Register’s website today — didn’t have that 37 years ago — asked why a nonpartisan group would put out a study to coincide with a rally on labor rights at the Iowa Capitol — this of course would make it clearly suspect.

Of course, it also is most timely when people are talking about these issues, and when some are busy spreading bad information. Or, maybe we should have waited until after new laws were passed based on bad information. Many, it is clear, do not want good information whenever it comes to them, especially if they don’t want to like the source.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director