That was the most common refrain from community members during the public comments section of yesterday’s Polk County minimum wage task force meeting in Des Moines. This gathering of the group focused on a separate youth wage to be implemented along with a new minimum wage in Iowa’s largest county. Many community members were unhappy with that decision.
The task force has already decided to recommend to the full county supervisor board a incremental increase in the minimum wage to $10.75/hour by 2019. Now they’re proposing a lower increased wage for workers under 18. At yesterday’s meeting they decided on setting that youth wage at 85% of the overall minimum wage increase.
“We wanted to make sure that it’s over and above what the minimum wage is now,” county supervisor Tom Hockensmith explained. “We ran a multitude of different percentages of what it looked like at 88%, what 83% would be, and what those numbers look like at each increment. It seemed like it was the best compromise that we could start off here for a discussion.”
Not all the task force members agreed with a youth wage, but a majority did and most of the rest supported setting it at 85% rather than a specific dollar amount, like what Minnesota is doing. Part of the concern was having to re-litigate the issue each year if the youth wage wasn’t tied to a specific percentage.
Many of those who rose to spoke took aim at the potential problems a separate wage for young people would cause.
“Your unintended consequences of creating a sub-minimum wage actually puts the real people you’re trying to help at a disadvantage,” said Mike Holms of the Jethro’s restaurant chain. “You’re creating a barrier to employment for the heads of households that really need this help against teenagers that should probably just be getting paid the same as it is.”
While many community members thanked the task force for taking on the difficult task of addressing a minimum wage increase, many expressed their displeasure of how the details were working out.
“In impoverished families, youth often work to support their families. Wanting to pay youth less is short-sighted and discriminatory,” said local activist Holly Herbert. “Those of you who are on the board of supervisors make over $100,000 a year. Why is it acceptable for you to expect the tax payers to support your salaries when you are unwilling to support a minimum wage that is a living wage?”
Andrew Rasmussen, who represents the Des Moines Education Association, told the task force that he gave them a “C-” grade for their solutions so far.
“It’s not bad, but it could have been better,” he said. “We continue to confront a very stark reality. Too many of our students are Iiving in homes facing poverty. In most Des Moines schools, the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, which is a common measure of poverty, is over 50%. Some schools serve populations that reach 70% and 80%. Poverty like this has drastic effects on a child’s ability to learn.”
There weren’t many young people on hand at the meeting, largely because it was held on a Thursday afternoon after school had started back up from the summer. So John Noble, a senior at Drake University, read a letter from a Waukee high school student who couldn’t make it.
“I believe that this idea promotes discrimination based on age,” Noble read. “Discrimination that is unconstitutional and, as I understand, unethical. I believe that this proposal simply allows employers to take advantage of young people who will take any job that pays. I believe that this so-called youth wage is actually hurting the youth of Polk County. It sets a dangerous precendent for lower pay for teens.”
Hockensmith told the crowd that their goal is to put the task force’s proposal before the full supervisors board in October. The plan is just that – a proposal – and could be changed, but given the time and research the task force has put into the matter, it’s likely what they propose will pass as a whole.
by Pat Rynard