(EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece first appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen. It is reprinted with the permission of Senator Bolkcom).
It might seem hard to believe, but some Iowa employers are regularly stealing from their employees. It’s a problem in Johnson County and across Iowa. A recent report suggests that unscrupulous Iowa employers are robbing Iowa workers of $600 million annually.
Iowans work hard for every dollar they earn, and it should not be stolen from them by their employers. This is a disgrace that must be stopped.
Last fall, Kossiwa Agbenowassi worked cleaning the Outback Steakhouse in Coralville. She worked hard seven days per week, scrubbing the dining area, kitchen and bathroom to support her young children. Now, months later, the cleaning subcontractor for Outback has refused to pay her for more than 49 days of work— a total of $2,346 in unpaid wages! Her efforts to get the money she earned have so far failed.
This is a classic case of wage theft, when workers aren’t paid the wages they are legally owed. Studies say it’s a growing epidemic in Iowa, and across the country.
Not only are these employers stealing from their employees, they are not paying withholding taxes, worker compensation or unemployment insurance. They are cheating the system while good employers and every taxpayer subsidize this deplorable practice.
Iowa has some of the weakest wage enforcement laws in the country with virtually no penalties or enforcement when cases are reported to Iowa Workforce Development. Until last year, the department had just one wage investigator to address the concerns of our state’s 1.3 million private sector employees. That’s why Senate Democrats insisted last year and successfully secured funding to add a second wage investigator.
Senate Democrats have introduced legislation several times over the past few years to establish better safeguards to ensure Iowans get paid and allow investigators to more easily go after businesses that fail to pay what they owe. The bill called for better record keeping, stronger penalties and retaliation protections for workers.
Unfortunately, these efforts have been blocked by some of Iowa’s largest and most powerful business associations, including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Grocers Association and the Federation of Iowa Insurers. Moreover, it has no support from Governor Branstad or House Republicans. And when we voted on it in the Senate this year, not a single Senate Republican supported legislation to protect Iowa workers. They appear to not care that taxpaying Iowa workers are getting millions of dollars of their money stolen from them.
The vast majority of Iowa’s employers are honest and ethical and have nothing to worry about. The proposed reforms simply require employers to provide the terms of employment to their employees in writing and keep a copy on file. This protects both the employer and the worker if there is a disagreement.
Because of the failure of politicians to better protect Iowa workers, the most effective enforcement has come from community groups that have waged a public campaign against employers that owe money but refuse to pay. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Center for Worker Justice have done extraordinary work in getting some workers back the money they have earned and are owed.
It is long past time to protect Iowa workers from the disgraceful practices of some Iowa employers.
~ Joe Bolkcom represents Iowa City in the state senate.