Where will Iowa’s economic recovery leave workers?

Line speeds at packing plants have become a political and legal issue. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

The coronavirus has changed the way we work, in many cases forever. The pandemic has also brought into sharp focus the powerless state of workers here in Iowa and the employer-driven policies that intentionally keep it that way.

State policymakers are crafting strategies now that will shape Iowa’s economic future and may further define the role of workers.

“Our economic comeback is not really just about yesterday,” Reynolds said in June, as she launched her Economic Recovery Advisory Board. “I think this is an incredible opportunity for us to capitalize on what we like to call the COVID ‘new normal’ to modernize and really restructure our economy, our education and health care systems, our workforce and our quality of life.”

Based on the membership of Reynolds’ advisory board, these discussions are being driven largely by major employers in the state and their political allies — not the workers who will be affected by the resulting agenda.

This is shaping to up be merely a continuation of the trends in Iowa that for decades have slowly but steadily eroded wages, worker rights, unemployment services, workers’ compensation for on-the-job injury, social services, health care, education and the environment.

Most of these decisions were made in the name of attracting jobs or are the result of a tax code that caters to businesses at the expense of basic government services. Before the pandemic, the most serious issue facing employers was the lack of skilled workers to fill available positions. Now, as the bottom falls out of Iowa’s economy, we’re seeing how these policies have hamstrung government’s ability to respond in a crisis.

Here are just a few examples:

Workplace safety and enforcement: A lot has been written about how Gov. Kim Reynolds decided to rely on the word of meatpacking plant managers that workers were being protected as the virus raged through one plant after another. Meanwhile, Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Iowa OSHA) failed to respond for weeks to a complaint that workers at the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction were being subjected to unsafe conditions amid a virus outbreak. Reynolds and her agency heads threatened that workers who quit rather than face unsafe conditions would be denied unemployment benefits. That memo did not reach the state’s administrative law judges, who more often than not awarded jobless benefits to those who resigned from unsafe workplaces.

It was striking that the Iowa Restaurant Association in July was pleading for better enforcement of COVID-19 mitigation regulations. Businesses that were flouting the rules left those who complied at a disadvantage. But there was not nearly enough enforcement to prevent mobbed bars, especially in college towns, with little sign of masks or social distancing. Now, business owners in six counties are again laying off workers as a result of the governor’s emergency shutdown.

Lack of paid sick leave: Some of the packing plants temporarily suspended attendance bonuses that encouraged employees to work when ill but the lack of paid sick leave left many workers with little choice but to conceal symptoms and keep collecting a paycheck. Many other essential employers, such as Hy-Vee, also have no paid sick leave for front-line workers.

Unemployment services: Former Gov. Terry Branstad slashed the unemployment infrastructure shortly after he returned to office in 2011, closing Iowa Workforce Development offices around the state and later doing away with kiosks that allowed people to access services in their community. Even a robust workforce might have needed time to adjust to the surge of demand for services during the pandemic, but Iowa’s anemic agency never stood a chance. The result was people unable to connect by phone for weeks and some waiting weeks for hearings in disputed cases and some being forced to return thousands in benefits.

None of these issues seems to be on the radar of the governor’s task force. Instead, the members are talking about the same issues that Iowa employers have been talking about for years: broadband expansion, taxes, “workforce development,” which addresses government support for skills training but never wages or benefits. All important issues, to be sure, but not nearly enough to make Iowa a good place to work and raise a family.

That’s not the fault of these business leaders, who are smart and capable and who are understandably focused on what would improve their own companies’ bottom line. The fault is with the unwillingness to talk to workers and their representatives about what they really need: safe workplaces with adequate enforcement to keep them that way, a living wage with opportunity for advancement, health insurance and access to health care, quality child care and schools, affordable housing, a clean environment and community recreation and cultural amenities.

On Labor Day, as many Iowans are taking a well-deserved break and the 2020 election rapidly approaches, it’s time to realize that workers can’t afford to leave this discussion to someone else. The pandemic will end eventually, but Iowa’s economy will be changed for the long term. If anyone benefits from these changes, it will be those who have a seat at the table.