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First reading of ordinance to lower minimum wage for minors

TIFFIN– They wondered why they were discussing it again.
Tiffin City Council members Jim Bartels and Mike Ryan both said Tiffin’s lack of action against Johnson County’s new minimum wage ordinance should have settled the issue in November.
However, the item was back on the council’s Feb. 2 agenda, after councilor Al Havens proposed a tiered wage to allow employers to pay people under age 18 the state minimum of $7.25 per hour.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to increase the minimum wage countywide to $8.20 per hour beginning Nov. 1, 2015. Additional increases are coming: this May, it jumps to $9.15, and in January 2017, to $10.10. Beginning July 1, 2018, the wage would increase each year by an amount corresponding to the federally reported Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Iowa law follows the federal law, but because Iowa is a home rule state, county and municipal governments are able to set different standards, as long as they don’t go below the state’s minimum of $7.25.
Last fall, the cities of Oxford, Solon, Swisher and Shueyville voted to stay at the state wage level. Other cities in Johnson County, including Tiffin, took no action, allowing the first increase to take effect in their communities.
Tiffin held two public discussions in 2015 seeking public input on the matter. While the majority of speakers at those public forums supported a higher minimum wage, a couple of business owners said paying the higher wage would hurt their bottom lines; particularly those relying on underage, unskilled workers who typically start at minimum wage in entry-level positions.
Out of concern for those businesses, Havens proposed a tiered system to allow Tiffin employers to pay a lower wage to workers under age 18.
City Administrator Doug Boldt and the city’s legal counsel worked to craft such an ordinance, with City Attorney Crystal Raiber, of Lynch, Michael and Raiber, L.L.P., offering the opinion the ordinance would be legal.
“We can find no cases or law on point which would prohibit the council from passing such an ordinance,” Raiber wrote in a council memo. “It is our understanding that the county is aware of Tiffin’s proposal, and it would be consistent with their ordinance provisions for opting out.”
However, Raiber noted, individual employers in Tiffin may want to discuss the matter with their own attorneys prior to paying minors the lower wage.
“It is unclear whether paying someone under 18 for doing the same job as someone over 18 violates the law,” Raiber wrote.
A few members of the audience, invited to speak at a public hearing before the vote, did question its legality.
“The first (consideration) is from a justice perspective,” said Johnson County Supervisor Lisa Green Douglass, whose children attend Clear Creek Amana High schools in Tiffin. “If you start making a cutoff based on age, you can flip that around and make the same discrimination about people over 50. Where do you draw the line? Can we do it based on color? Can we do it based on their religion or lack of? Can we do it based on their height? I don’t know that it’s even a legal thing to say someone under 18 years old can get a different wage from someone who is 18 and doing the same work. Equal work should get equal pay.”
Others made a plea on behalf of teenagers who work to help pay household bills or to offset upcoming education expenses.
Melissa Arey of Tiffin said she learned that at Clear Creek Amana’s schools, 24 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch prices based on low household incomes. She referred to a previously-published quote from Mayor Steve Berner that teenagers don’t need to make a living wage.
“If one out of four children qualify for assistance in our community, it’s easy to extrapolate that some, if not many, of our 16 to 18 year olds are assisting with household bills to keep their families solvent,” Arey said. “While Mayor Berner may not have needed his children to help pay regular bills, we cannot assume that all children in our community have this privilege.”
Misty Rebik, Director of the Center for Worker Justice in Iowa City, said she began working in the restaurant industry at age 14 to save money for college. “I came from a working class family, and the only way I could go is if I could save my own money,” Rebik said. “I got to be a pretty good server by the time I was 17. Often, people who were going to the community college were hired at age 18 or 19 and had no experience. If this ordinance had been in place, I would have been paid less even though I had more experience, and they would have gotten a raise just because of their age. Frankly I think it’s discrimination.”
Perceived discrimination was a theme running throughout most comments to the council.
“Let’s not make Tiffin the town that discriminates because of age, because who knows where we’ll go to next,” said Kate Fisher, of Tiffin. “That’s just not right for us.”
Miriam Aguilar, also of Tiffin, agreed. She said her children were hardworking kids with good grades, who must work to save money for college.
“We encourage young people to work so they gain experience and self-confidence. If we tell them they are not as valuable as 18-year-olds, we diminish them. I don’t think that is fair,” said Aguilar. She said she participated in the well-attended presidential caucuses the night prior, and was inspired to see so many people who care about the future. “We love this community, and we believe that our kids are as valuable as anyone else here.”
While public sentiment leaned toward fairness and equal pay, council members looked at it from an economic perspective.
Havens read from the Department of Labor listing age restrictions on certain types of jobs.
“There is a litany of jobs those under age 16 cannot do. The concern I had is, if we adopt a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, will this community be able to attract businesses that need a large number of employees and not all of them necessarily adults?” Havens posed. He said neighboring Linn, Washington and Cedar counties still go by the state minimum, while their living expenses are similar to Johnson County’s. “The adults in those communities are not getting a higher minimum wage. I appreciate the fairness issue, but I would also like to promote business growth in this community.”
Council woman Jo Kahler said, as a retiree, she works part-time in a job that also employs teenagers, and the younger workers are often unreliable.
“There are many days I have to do double because these young people don’t show up to work,” said Kahler. “I tell them, ‘if you want a job, go to work and be there.’ And they are getting 10 bucks an hour, the same as I am. I feel you have to prove yourself to be a good worker and you will get your raise.”
Councilor Peggy Upton said she could see both sides of the issue, and if the 1968 federal minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation it would be $10.64 by now– well above the county’s current rate.
However, Upton continued, the Tiffin council doesn’t just represent low income workers.
“We represent everybody. That includes business owners and all the citizens who are going to pay higher prices for everything,” said Upton.
She disagreed a tiered wage was discriminatory, because young workers receive benefits from a first job aside beyond a paycheck, like learning valuable skills and gaining real-world experiences.
“That said, life is not fair, and there is no way we can make it fair by saying everybody should get the same money for the same job. Is it fair to ask everybody in town to pay more for their goods and services? It’s not as simple as a warm fuzzy decision to let everyone have more money. There is a cost to be paid, and everybody will pay the cost.”
Berner offered an example of a Nebraska relative who manages a retail store. When that state enacted a higher minimum wage, the store manager simply decreased workers’ hours.
“Even though you think they are getting paid more, it doesn’t mean they are making more money,” said Berner. “I don’t know if you know the practical implementation of what you are talking about, but that’s a fact; they’re getting less hours.”
Councilor Bartels recalled what Arey had said earlier; that one-fourth of Tiffin’s students are eligible for assistance.
“We have food pantries, and there is a reason for that. I don’t even know why we are back to this subject. I thought we were done with this. Morally, it’s wrong. Legally, it’s questionable,” Bartels said. “I can’t believe businesses can’t afford this. We can’t resurrect these wrongs, we can just vote our conscience, and I can’t vote for this. ”
Ryan, who has been a vocal advocate for the higher wage, offered the most impassioned plea against the ordinance. He said arguments that businesses won’t locate in Tiffin or teenagers won’t be able to find jobs in a higher wage economy are just, “crocodile tears. I think it’s about suppressing wages.”
A minimum wage sets the floor, he added. “I find it stunning that we would consider yanking the floor out. Because it isn’t just about exploiting child labor or discriminating against kids– and those words are absolutely correct– it hurts adults. When the floor gets dropped, it passes up.”
Ryan also said he did not believe businesses would absorb the costs of paying a higher minimum wage.
“We’ll all absorb the cost, but I think the people in this room who spoke tonight understand that. I’ll pay more for a loaf of bread if it means people stocking the shelves are making a living wage and can afford to pay rent in this community,” Ryan said. “And there is no reason to believe that we have nearly 3,000 people who need bread and milk and their tires changed and a myriad of services, but (businesses) won’t come here and take care of those needs because they can’t do it without taking advantage of child labor?”
From another economic perspective, he referred to minors who have to earn their own living.
“Here are the facts; there are teenagers who don’t go to school, maybe don’t have a home life, that need a job to get by. There are single mothers under 18 years old trying to make ends meet. Do you know how much money this is for a full time worker? It’s $76 a week, and come May 1, you are going cut her salary just like that. Next January, take that same mother– if she hasn’t turned 18 yet– and it’s $114 a week. This is the effect of what we are talking about.
“Please, consider what we are talking about. It’s a bad law,” Ryan said, to audience applause.
Ryan’s plea and Bartel’s remarks were not enough to sway the majority; the first reading of the ordinance passed 2-3, with Upton, Havens and Kahler supporting it.
Two more readings are required for the ordinance to be passed, which will likely be held in the council’s next meetings Feb. 16 and March 1.
To further illustrate his point, Ryan urged audience members and media personnel, present last week, to remain seated for the next agenda item: a development agreement between the City of Tiffin and Sprout Kids Academy daycare center including a five-year tax abatement incentive in the amount not to exceed $110,000.
Upton asked how many jobs the daycare would generate, and business owner Bob Conrad, of Iowa City, estimated around 18 to 20.
“How many of those will be children?” Ryan shot back.
Ryan gave the lone dissenting vote on the development agreement.
“We don’t have to do this,” Ryan said, evoking words spoken by Mayor Berner in earlier meetings about incentivizing businesses. “I’ll just echo what you mentioned a couple of years ago, Steve, when businesses were asking for a tax advantage: the businesses will come anyway. For the time I have left on this council, I am done with business welfare. We just took 100 bucks a week out of a teenager’s pocket, and you want to give $110,000 to someone who already has assets?
“I can’t see my way clear to it,” Ryan concluded. “This is those people’s tax money, and it’s going into their (business owners’) bank accounts.”