Iowa’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Democrats in Iowa are calling for an increase, and in Washington, Democratic lawmakers would like to see the federal minimum wage raised to $12 by 2020.
On this edition of River to River we kick off our summer jobs series, Iowa At Work, by talking with Iowans trying to make ends meet on low wages.
Host Ben Kieffer talks with people like Iowa City resident Angela Lambertz, who has worked several minimum wage jobs.
"I worked in food service," says Lambertz. "I was working up to 25 hours a week, and when I could work 40 hours a week, overnights and going to school full-time, it was still minimum wage. I didn't make enough to pay rent and buy food."
"I'm not very proud to say this - I stole food from my workplaces, and I didn't eat very much."
David Cooper, an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, says that minimum wage has not kept up with inflation since the 1960s. In his research he suggests that raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would lift wages for 35 million workers.
"That's about a quarter of the U.S. workforce," Cooper says. "We hear a lot of politicians talking about inequality, but really what they are talking about is low wages because the vast majority of Americans get their income from wages, so if you want to do something about inequality, you have to raise people's wages."
"The fact is that over the last forty years, wages for folks at the top have grown dramatically faster than for typical workers, and wages for folks at the bottom have actually fallen," Cooper says.
Efforts to raise the minimum wage are happening across the state. Bridget Fagan, of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and Iowa Senator Tony Bisignano both worked this legislative session to raise wages. Despite their effort, the proposal to raise the minimum wage did not pass, as it did not have the support of Republican lawmakers.
Lobbyist Craig Walter, who represents the Iowa Lodging Association and the Iowa Restaurant Association, says that the $10.10 per hour proposal by Iowa Democrats, a forty percent increase, will have a negative effect on the lodging and restaurant industry, "whether it would reduce employment, reduce the number of hours that the people are working, cut services, or maybe a price increase to the customer."
Walter also says that not many of the industries' workers are making minimum wage.
"We have looked at it as a starting wage. It's made up of new employees that are trained or need training: over half of them are teenagers or young adults. Better than almost 2/3 of those are folks that work almost 35 hours or less. I don't know of anybody currently that we are hiring at $7.25."
For now, Iowa's minimum wage will stay at $7.25 per hour, although Bisignano says the fight is not over.
"I want to bring it up again [in the legislature] along with other issues like wage theft and payroll debit cards. It’s time to stop waging war on poor people in the state.”