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Johnson County Raises Local Minimum Wage Despite State Preemption

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Johnson County is raising its suggested minimum wage to $10.27 an hour. While officials can’t legally enforce the change, they hope it will set a new baseline for worker pay. 

The county board of supervisors approved the 17 cent raise unanimously Thursday, up from the area's current preferred wage of $10.10 an hour.

Johnson County first voted to set its own minimum wage in 2015, with the idea of adjusting the rate every year according to the Consumer Price Index's cost of living estimates. Thursday's vote did just that.

But the increase is just a suggestion, because of a state law blocking local control of the issue. The Iowa Legislature made the change in 2017, in response to local governments that deviated from the state's minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Despite the fact their ordinance is unenforceable, Johnson County officials argue their actions are more than symbolic. Supervisor Janelle Rettig is banking on lawmakers ultimately restoring local control. 

"I believe [in] local control. Our economy is different than other areas. This corridor is different," Rettig said.

While the county can't force businesses to adopt the new rate, supporters say the suggested wage will empower workers to demand higher pay. Rafael Morataya heads the Center for Worker Justice, which is based in Iowa City.

"You pay under the $10.10? Workers aren't going to do that!" Morataya said. "We had heard a lot of complaints from hotels and restaurants and businesses, ‘Hey, you know, right, I’m looking for workers!’ But if you offer them more than $10.10, you would find those people!”

County officials admit the 17 cent increase may not seem like much. But they argue tying wages to the cost of living and implementing these incremental changes will help workers stay afloat in a changing economy, year after year. Greg Hearns with the Teamsters Local 238 says the new rate would make a difference for struggling families.

“I've represented some single mothers and some single dads that work second and third shift," Hearns said. "When it comes to choosing whether or not you’re going to have childcare, whether or not you’re going to pay your rent, whether or not you’re going to have food, there were situations where people chose to leave their kids at home alone while they went to work on second and third shift.”

According to the Center for Worker Justice, an estimated 160 local businesses adopted the $10.10 rate. County officials hope they’ll support this change too. The new suggested rate goes into effect this July.