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No middle ground for Tiffin minimum wage

At an Oct. 28 meeting, Tiffin City Council member Mike Ryan offers his second impassioned argument for raising the minimum wage to corespond with the county’s recently-adopted wage hike. (photo by Lori Lindner)

TIFFIN– What was proposed as a compromise in Tiffin’s minimum wage debate failed to bring two opposing views together.
The Tiffin City Council spent more time in its Oct. 28 work session trying to work toward consensus on whether to abide by Johnson County’s new minimum wage increase or adopt a separate municipal ordinance that would keep Tiffin’s minimum at $7.25 per hour. A third option proposed by council member Al Havens in an earlier meeting– to create a tiered wage system in which minors under age 18 could be paid at the state’s minimum wage, while adults were paid according to the county ordinance– was examined, but gained no traction with the two councilors who favor raising it.
Likewise, the two members who oppose the increase couldn’t quite reach middle ground.
In the council’s Oct. 14 meeting, councilors Mike Ryan and Jim Bartels strongly supported abiding by Johnson County’s new ordinance that raised the minimum wage countywide to $8.20 per hour on Nov. 1. A hike to $9.15 will occur on May 1, 2016 and a jump to $10.10 will come in January 2017. Thereafter, the county minimum wage would increase by an amount corresponding to the U.S. Consumer Price Index.
Council members Peggy Upton and Jo Kahler were not in favor of the increase, citing a concern for consumers who will bear the brunt of the wage hike by paying higher prices for goods and services, and an unwillingness to dictate what local employers should pay workers.
Two business owners, who said they employ a number of high school workers, felt the wage increase would significantly impact their bottom lines, and Havens asked if the compromise in the form of a lower wage for minors could be crafted.
Since that meeting, City Administrator Doug Boldt researched the proposal, saying he spoke with everyone from “the Johnson County Assistant Attorney all the way up to the State of Iowa’s Attorney General,” and could find only one municipality in the United States that had ever tried it, in Minnesota.
“From everything I learned, it sounds like we can,” Boldt said. “It’s really a matter of where do we want that tier to be?”
Ryan didn’t want it at all.
“Ever since the minimum wage law, there has never been a differentiation between what we pay children and adults. The reasons are obvious,” Ryan said. “If you had a lower wage for children, businesses will exploit it and hire more children and fewer adults.”
Havens argued a higher minimum across all age levels would negatively impact the employee pool as well.
“The number of jobs for kids is dwindling significantly. If you start paying everyone at $10.10, they are going to hire adults and kids won’t have any jobs either. You have to look at the kids in this community and give them opportunities too. For bigger businesses that have lower level jobs that a kid can do, this would make it more feasible for them to hire a greater number of laborers at a lower cost, and still provide a living wage for adults who have to provide for their own households,” said Havens.
Upton said the issue had caused her to think longer and harder than almost anything else the council had faced.
“I was unhappy with the county dumping it on us,” said Upton. “But we are all going to suffer through the learning process one way or the other.”
Upton said her research showed if the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation in 1979, it would be $9.47 today.
“It should be way higher than it is,” she conceded. “However, we are not burdening the business owners. We are going to burden the taxpayers either way. The costs are going to be passed on to people who patronize the businesses. Whatever we do, it’s going to impact all the taxpayers in our community.”
Further, Upton said, an increase to $10.25 an hour might lift a family out of poverty level, perhaps eliminating their eligibility for financial assistance from federal or state programs.
“We don’t want to harm anyone by doing good,” she added. Upton did say she agreed with Haven’s idea of the tiered system, but teenagers don’t have the same skill set as adult experienced workers. Upton did not want to make it impractical for businesses to hire and train young employees, thereby giving them opportunities to develop valuable work skills.
“I think the tiered system is a good idea in that regard, and I think 18 is a good cutoff. They are getting a trade-off in real-world skills that will serve them down the road, and I don’t think we want to chill that,” Upton said.
Bartels maintained his support for raising the minimum wage, reiterating Ryan’s point that the city grants tax incentives for businesses that employ minimum wage workers.
“I don’t understand how businesses or developers can say they need money, and on the other hand say others don’t,” Bartels said. “I’m in agreement with Johnson County. I think people have been sloughed off way too long. It’s not a business decision. It’s a people decision.”
Kahler said in her conversations with local business owners, most pay more than $7.25 an hour.
“When they start out young people, sure they are training them,” Kahler said. “I think we are putting the businesses in a bad position. I really want to stay out of it because we don’t have any business telling people what they have to pay for wages.”
The stalemate ended in much the same way as the council’s earlier discussion; an agreement to seek more information.
The county’s ordinance took effect Nov. 1, which requires all of Tiffin’s businesses to increase their minimum wage to $8.10. If the council decides to adopt a different ordinance, it can choose to keep the wage at $8.10 or even drop back to the state’s minimum at any point after Nov. 1.
Boldt asked for direction, and Upton felt two more weeks would not make a significant difference.
“I suggest we wait for the public hearing and see what people have to say,” Upton said. “We are all over the place. Maybe the public is too. I say we get some input from them and see what they’d like to do.”
However, the council adjourned the discussion without putting specific language in the ordinance. Public input will be taken, but there will be no ordinance attached to it, and no decision will be made that evening.
Tiffin’s public hearing will be held Tuesday, Nov. 10, a day earlier than their regular schedule because of the Veterans Day holiday.