Minimum wage hike raises questions about equal pay in Johnson County

Young protestors gather at a Tiffin City Council meeting. -- photo by Adam Burke
Young protestors gather at a Tiffin City Council meeting. — photo by Adam Burke

The town of Tiffin is growing fast. The population was under 2,000 people in 2010, but by 2020 it’s expected to swell to 3,400.

Today, there are few jobs for anyone in Tiffin, unless you’re building a housing unit. Next to the high school, developer Jim Glasgow is building more than 200 housing units. He’s also planned a huge commerce center that includes a medical office complex, over 20 commercial business spaces, a day-care facility and a veterinarian clinic—indicating more jobs could come soon.

New jobs, new people. And that means new laws.

Up for vote at a Feb. 16 Tiffin City Council meeting, on a second of three readings, was an ordinance that would have stripped anyone under the age of 18 of their brand new Johnson County minimum wage raise. That hike takes minimum wage from the current state and federal minimum of $7.25 to $10.10 incrementally over the next two years, and began with an initial 95 cent increase last November.

The Tiffin proposal would lower wages for the lowest-paid in town—specifically, teenagers, a group that often works low-wage jobs. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 89% of those making $7.25 or less per hour are under the age of 20.

At the first reading, the tiered wage plan passed 3-2, and this second vote wasn’t expected to be much different.

But then council member Mike Ryan, who has called that plan “exploitation” and discriminatory, proposed a compromise. He said he had chatted with fellow council member Al Havens about a deal to make the minimum wage apply only to anyone under the age of 16, instead of 18.

Their compromise would let 16- and 17-year-olds keep their raises, and the next one due in May, as well as the one in 2017 that brings the county minimum wage to $10.10. (By 2018 and thereafter, the wage will be determined by the Consumer Price Index.)

The new deal would exclude all workers 15 and under from the raise and hold them to the lower state minimum.The move deflated the dozens of protesters who’d come to voice their opposition to what would make Tiffin the only city in the state with two minimum wages, one for mid-teens and one for everyone else.

Photo by Adam Burke
Photo by Adam Burke

The 18-under proposal was scrapped, and at press time, the 16-under compromise had not been put on a council agenda for a first vote.

Ryan secured the support of Havens, the council member who’d brought the age-based ordinance to the council.

That night, Havens, after reading one of the signs in an audience that included dozens of protesters, said, “My concern is not equal pay for equal work. My concern is jobs—employment opportunities in the community … If they [teenagers] can make $10.10 an hour but there are no jobs, they’ve got nothing in their pocket.”

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Amiah Wehrle, 15, has worked in a Tiffin daycare center, Little Clippers, for about five months.

“Some teens have big responsibilities,” she said when asked why she should get to keep the raise that crept up to $8.20 late last year.

The person who hired her, Amanda Rairden, has run Little Clippers in Tiffin for seven years.

Rairden said the Tiffin council’s wage decrease for teens was “not fair.”

“It doesn’t seem right,” she said.

She plans to keep Wehrle’s or any other employee’s hourly pay where it is if the Tiffin council’s tiered wage plan goes through.

But, if passed, she said she’d start all new daycare staff at the state minimum, currently $7.25.

• • •

In a Little Village survey of Clear Creek-Amana High School (CCA) students who were asked about the tiered minimum wage ordinance that would exempt Tiffin businesses from paying the county wage, the overwhelming majority of respondents were against the decrease.

At the time of the survey, Wehrle hadn’t known about the proposed wage decrease for 14-17-year-olds, nor the original Johnson County minimum wage increase that prompted the City Council to act. In fact, less than half of the respondents said they had heard of those changes before they took the survey.

Why does Wehrle think the wage floor should not be tiered in Tiffin?

“Because we need the money,” she said. She also thought the minimum wage should be $10.50 an hour.

Another Tiffin teen, Matt, who’s 16 and works in construction, said he makes $10 an hour. He thought Tiffin’s proposed minimum wage decrease was “not fair” but said the federal wage, $7.25 per hour, was about right for a minimum wage.

“Young people can work just as hard as older people,” and could even do more work than older people, he said.

Chloe, 15, works three jobs, two of them in Tiffin, and makes the county minimum of $8.20.

“I’m paying for my gas, lunch money, etc. while also trying to save for college,” she said.

CCA students called Tiffin’s tiered wage plan a variety of names: “silly,” “stupid,” “garbage,” “petty” or worse.

Nicole is 16 and makes $8.30 per hour doing seasonal work in Tiffin. She said, “It’s unfair to say that just because someone is under 18 that they deserve less.”

Several CCA students said they were saving for college, but a majority of those who responded to the survey worked outside Tiffin, some at Fareway in North Liberty, some at the Coral Ridge Mall, others in Williamsburg, where their wages would not be affected by the council move.

Among those who had heard of the Tiffin decrease, the place where they said they found out about it was Facebook.

A few CCA students supported tiered wages.

“Younger people don’t have to pay rent or support a family,” said John, 16, who works at Subway.

Jordan, also 16, who works in construction, thought that pay should be “based on the worker’s skill,” but also, “it should be lowered for everyone.”

David, another 16-year-old construction worker said the same thing.

None of the students had heard of the “Fight for $15” campaign that has led fast-food workers to go on strike in cities across the country to demand a $15 per hour minimum wage.

• • •

In a phone interview, Tiffin council member Jim Bartels said, “It’s morally or maybe even legally wrong,” to pay lower wages based on the worker’s age.

Back in November, the Tiffin council decided to take a wait-and-see approach to the first county wage bump, initially accepting it, unlike Solon, Swisher and Oxford, where councils quickly opted out.

“I was surprised it was back on the list,” Bartels said.

He said most of the people he’d talked to didn’t want the lowered wages in town, “just the businesses [do].”

His fellow council member, Jo Kahler, had a different take on wages.

“I don’t believe we have any right telling businesses what they have to pay for wages,” she said in a phone interview.

“I’m from the old school,” she explained, “I feel that kids—15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds—should be going to school the best they can. We had so many at the meeting that said, ‘Oh, they can buy their own clothes and they can help us with food and stuff.’ No, that’s not a kid’s problem, that’s for parents.”

Tiffin Mayor Steve Berner said he preferred to go the way Solon and a number of other cities went, with no minimum wage hike. But he said he felt the idea of separate wages for younger workers was “a good compromise.”

After the under 18 wage tiering was voted down for a second time, councilors consulted with the city staff about whether to hold another public hearing and decided against it.

Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan thinks Tiffin’s plan is a “bad idea.” But he defended Ryan’s compromise to limit the Tiffin ordinance to under 16-years-old instead of under 18.

“Mike has been a strong voice for low wage workers,” Sullivan said.

“I wish people would focus on those that forced the compromise,” he wrote in a Facebook post about Tiffin’s tiered wage vote.

Bartels couldn’t understand why his fellow council members wanted to bring the matter back to their agenda: “All it does, it seems like, is bring us more publicity.”

Note: At a special meeting shortly before press time, the Tiffin City Council voted 4-1 to request their City Administrator craft a $9 per hour minimum wage regardless of age.

LV reporter Adam Burke interviewed CCA students about the minimum wage on their lunch breaks in early February. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 194.