Red state legislatures are taking away workers’ raises and paid leave

A rising wave of preemption laws blocking cities from increasing their wages and benefits is sweeping the country.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) in the state legislature. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) in the state legislature. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

On the first of the year, any residents of Johnson County, Iowa making the minimum wage got a boost: their pay rose to $10.10 an hour as a locally passed ordinance from 2015 went into effect. Linn County residents got a raise to at least $8.25 an hour.

More Iowans were soon going to join them. Come 2019, Wapello County planned to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while Linn was set to go to $10.25 and Polk County to $10.75. Lee County was considering its own increase.

Now all of that is changing. On Monday, the Iowa state Senate passed a law that will not just freeze the its minimum wage at the federal floor of $7.25 an hour, but roll back the increases that were passed by Johnson, Linn, Polk, and Wapello Counties. No local governments will be able to pass their own minimum wage increases if it’s signed into law. The bill now heads to Gov. Terry Branstad’s (R) desk, who is expected to sign it.

If he does, those raises in Johnson and Linn will disappear. “The bill’s passage marks the first time anywhere in the U.S. that state lawmakers have actually taken away raises from workers who already received them,” according to a statement from Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

It’s the latest advance in an all-out battle many states are waging against local efforts to increase their residents’ wages and benefits. As more cities pass minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements, amid Congressional inaction on both issues, preemption bills stymieing their efforts have proliferated. According to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), every year has seen more states consider such legislation, with 36 states in 2016, up from 29 the year before and 23 the year before that.

Many of those bills have turned into law. Twenty-three states now preempt local efforts to increase the minimum wage, according to CMD, while 16 ban cities and counties from mandating paid sick leave.

This year is on track to continue the trend. Beyond Iowa, Georgia, Illinois, and Minnesota are considering minimum wage preemption bills. Six states — Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina — are looking at paid sick leave bans.

Even these figures understate the full picture, as many states consider bills that would block multiple issues at the local level, such as minimum wage increases, mandated paid sick leave, LGBT protections, and even things like bans on plastic bags.

If just two more states join Iowa this year, that will mean a majority preempt cities and counties from increasing their own minimum wages. Georgia appears to have the votes; in Minnesota, it’s possible Gov. Mark Dayton (D) will hold the line.

As in the reversal of pay raises in Iowa, some paid sick leave preemption bills could rescind benefits that have already gone into effect. In New Jersey, 12 cities have mandated paid sick leave. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Portland and Eugene in Oregon, Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, and Montgomery County in Maryland have all done the same.

The rise in preemption laws across the country tracks closely with the increasing capture of state legislatures by Republican majorities, starting with the 2010 midterms that handed full control of 11 legislatures to Republicans. Fourteen of the paid sick leave bans and most of the minimum wage bills came after that election. “It’s certainly the case that there’s an increase in these red legislatures,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of CMD.

In Minnesota, for example, Republicans won a majority in both chambers of the legislature in November’s election, and now those lawmakers are pushing to roll back local efforts on wages and sick leave. Graves sees this as representatives of rural areas trying to impose their will on the cities, where the cost of living is much higher. “Those cities have adopted popular measures to address this,” she said. “And it’s really unfortunate that some of these rural electeds are trying to displace the popular will of the cities that they don’t even live in.”

“Those cities are not trying to impose those rules on rural areas,” she added. “They’re just trying to enact measures to govern themselves.” It also flies in the face of the conservative value of devolving power down to the most local level possible, given that it takes away cities’ ability to legislate.

These bills are also top priorities for some large business groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Many preemption laws are based off of ALEC’s model bills.

“As the legislatures in essence turn redder, they are increasingly captured by some of these special interests that want to take away these powers,” Graves said. City lawmakers, on the other hand, tend to be less vulnerable to lobbyist capture because they don’t have to raise as much money in their races, she contends.

There is a ray of hope for advocates who push for higher wages and benefits. In Arizona, after state lawmakers passed both a paid sick leave preemption bill and another that allows the state to withhold funding from a city or county that passes a law different than state statutes, advocates got to work on a statewide ballot measures to guarantee paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage.

“Organizers went door to door,” Graves said. And it worked. “In the midst of a Trump election, they won.” On November 8th, voters approved a minimum wage increase to $12 an hour by 2020 and made their state one of the seven that mandate paid leave.

The state’s actions ultimately backfired. “They were galvanized to move forward,” Graves said.