The minimum wage has been in the news a lot lately. Here in central Iowa, the Polk County Board of Supervisors appointed a task force to study whether to raise the minimum wage in the County over and above the federal and state law minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Now the task force has come back with a recommendation that Polk County increase the minimum wage to $10.75 per hour in a series of incremental steps over three years. The proposal is to raise the minimum wage to $8.75 on April 1, 2017, followed by $1 increases on January 1, 2018 and 2019, to a total of $10.75.
While the political momentum seems to favor an increase in the Polk County minimum wage, some have raised the question whether a County in Iowa has the legal right to impose a minimum wage higher than the wage state or federal law requires.
Like many legal questions, the answer is, “it depends.” Iowa law gives counties the power of what is known as “home rule”. So long as a county ordinance does not conflict with the requirements of a state law, a county is free to legislate as it deems appropriate for the welfare of its citizens. Home rule includes the right to set standards and requirements higher or more stringent that those imposed by state law, unless the state law provides otherwise. On the surface, therefore, it seems there is nothing that would prevent a county from raising its minimum wage above the state mandated minimum.
But, looking below the surface, there could be problems. For example, Iowa law permits tipped employees to be paid up to 40% less than state mandated minimum wage. If Polk County were to raise the minimum without an exception for tipped employees, it would conflict with the state law, and subject it to a potential legal challenge. In addition, Iowa law gives cities virtually the same home rule authority has counties. Therefore, a city within Polk County could effectively opt out of the county imposed higher minimum wage by enacting its own wage ordinance. Nor does the proposed wage increase address the practical problem of cities located in more than one county, such as West Des Moines.
Central Iowa employers will be watching this debate closely.