Reprinted with permission from the Prairie Progressive
by Joe 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 Iowa Policy Project report suggests that unscrupulous Iowa employers are robbing Iowa workers of $600 million annually.
Iowans work hard for every dollar they earn. It should not be stolen from them by their employers. In the fall of 2013, Kossiwa Agbenowossi worked at the Outback Steakhouse in Coralville. She worked hard 7 days a week, scrubbing the dining area, kitchen, and bathroom to support her children. Months and months passed without her being paid for her work.
Thanks to the tenacious organizing work done by the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, Kossiwa finally got paid for the 49 days of work cleaning the now out-of –business steakhouse. After waiting a year and-a-half to be paid, Agbenowossi received the $2,346 an Outback cleaning subcontractor owed her.
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. The difference in this case is that Kossiwa had the incredible support of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. They organized public protests at Outback, and filed complaints on her behalf with the U.S. Department of Labor and Iowa Workforce Development. Most cases of wage theft do not result in the worker getting paid.
Wage theft affects us all. Not only are these employers taking advantage of their employees, they are also 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 concerns of our state’s 1.3 million private sector employees. That’s why last year Iowa Senate Democrats insisted on and got funding to add a second wage investigator.
Iowa Senate Democrats have introduced and approved 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 bills called for better record keeping, stronger penalties and retaliation protections for workers.
Unfortunately, these legislative efforts have been stymied due to intense lobby efforts 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. They have fought the legislation for six years. Moreover, it has no support from Governor Branstad, House Republican Leader Kraig Paulsen, or most Republicans. They appear to not care that taxpaying Iowa workers are getting their money stolen from them.
The vast majority of Iowa’s employers is honest and ethical and has nothing to worry about. The legislation simply requires them 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.
It is long past time to protect Iowa workers from the disgraceful practices of some Iowa employers. It’s time to get tough on wage thieves!
To learn more about the problem of wage theft in Iowa, visit http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/wagetheft.html
–State Senator Joe Bolkcom
lives in Iowa City.
Reprinted with permission from the December 2014 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr.!! Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.