Stolen Chances: Low-wage work and wage theft in Iowa

Our 2012 report Wage Theft in Iowa characterized wage theft as an “invisible epidemic” affecting thousands of low-wage workers in Iowa. Since 2012, numerous media reports, an uptick in worker organizing to recover unpaid wages, and heightened attention from some state and local elected officials have made Iowa’s wage theft problem far more visible. Yet the state’s landscape of lax enforcement remains fundamentally unaltered, and new evidence presented in this report underscores the persistence and scope of the problem.

Our 2012 report used national survey work done by the National Employment Law Project to calculate a baseline for the incidence of wage theft among low-wage workers, and then used Iowa demographic statistics to develop estimates of lost wages and lost tax revenues for our state. Our estimates — $600 million in stolen wages and another $120 million in unpaid sales, income and payroll taxes annually — gave dimension and scale to a problem that, to that point, we understood mostly through a few egregious cases (such as that of Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa), anecdotal evidence of wage theft reported by many workers, and close studies of a few industries (such as construction).

This report updates and expands on that work by drawing on two more years of claims and enforcement data from state and national agencies, and new results of a 2014 survey of 300 low-wage workers in Eastern Iowa. These local survey responses provide some of the first direct glimpses we have into the scope and nature of Iowa workers’ experiences with wage theft.