First-in-Iowa wage hike splits businesses, employees

Amarilys Saldana, an 18-year-old University of Iowa freshman, welcomes the gradual minimum wage increase. She lives as frugally as possible, but said any extra money would help with tuition.


DES MOINES (AP) — Nearly four months after Johnson County became the first in Iowa to gradually increase its minimum wage above the federal standard, workers are welcoming the change while some business owners say they're unsure how to handle the extra expense.

Workers like Ghada Jameel, a 38-year-old day care worker who is also taking classes at Kirkwood Community College, said the first 95 cent increase that took effect Nov. 1 has already made life easier for her and her husband, who works at a taxi driver. And she's ecstatic about two more raises that will bring her pay to $9.15 in May and $10.10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2017.

"I think I'm gonna be rich. Ten is good for me," she said.

Johnson County supervisors approved the increases last fall in an effort to help low-wage workers, who haven't seen an increase in Iowa's $7.25 hourly minimum wage since 2009.

Amarilys Saldana, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Iowa, said she lives as frugally as possible. Any extra money earned would be put toward her tuition, she said.

"Right now with what I'm making, I'm so conservative with it," she said. "I don't like to go out, eat out because that's money that I could be saving."

Saldana, who works 10 to 15 hours a week at a university apparel and book store, said higher wages are necessary for students who are paying their own tuition.

"Some people may not think it's a huge difference, but for students it's definitely a big change," she said.

Nationally, 32 cities and counties have raised minimum wages, according to the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ken Jacobs, the center's chairman, said that most of the increased wages were approved recently, often in metro areas that are more liberal than their states as a whole.

That fits Johnson County, but not everyone in the county is on board with the trend.

City Councils in the small cities of Solon, Swisher, Shueyville and Oxford opted not to adopt the new county minimum wage. And some business owners said the initial increase was manageable, but they worry about future raises.

Doug Alberhasky, who owns John's Grocery, said the small Iowa City business known for its beer and wine selection will either increase prices or reduce staff.

"In a small business you can't dictate how many customers are coming through the door. You can't dictate what they're buying, but you can dictate how many people you have on the sales floor," Alberhasky said.

Jammie Goedken, who has run the coffee shop T.Spoons near the University of Iowa campus for 15 years, said she has always paid slightly higher than the state minimum, but she's concerned about the timing of the May increase, as it will come just as students are leaving for summer.

"May is going to be a little bit of stretch just because that's when Iowa City kind of clears out, and I don't think people have thought that through," she said.

Advocates of the minimum wage increase hope that it could prompt other counties or the state to follow suit and raise pay.

In Linn County, supervisors have created a committee made up of business and labor representatives from a number of cities that will study whether to approve a similar increase.

Supervisor Brent Oleson said he'd prefer a statewide increase and noted that the local group wouldn't make any recommendation until the end of the legislative session in case lawmakers act on bills that would raise the wage.

Lawmakers have repeatedly discussed the minimum wage, and last year the Democratic-led Senate approved a bill calling for an increase to $8.75. The Republican-controlled House has taken little action on the bill, and it's set to die in early March.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, the chairman of the Senate labor committee and a supporter of raising the minimum wage, said he doubts that the House will approve the proposed raise.

"I think it's bad that counties have to take the action on their own on such a critical matter for workers but I'm happy that (Johnson County) did," he said.

Misty Rebik, the executive director of the Iowa City-based Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, said her group appreciates the Johnson County increase but will keep pushing for an even higher minimum wage of $15 an hour. Rebik described that amount as a livable wage.

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