On July 1, Chicago’s minimum wage is scheduled to tick up to $11 an hour for all non-tipped employees — $2.75 more than the statewide minimum wage of $8.25. The increase is tied to a 2014 ordinance that will increase the minimum wages for the city’s workers up to $13 an hour each year until 2019.
According to a statement on the city’s website, the gradual pay raises “will increase the earnings for approximately 410,000 Chicago workers, inject $860 million into the local economy, and lift 70,000 workers out of poverty.”
But not all Chicago residents work in Chicago. Many, like Austin resident Anthony Stewart, currently or used to work as temporary workers for employers in the Cook County suburbs. For many of them, the minimum wage is still $8.25 an hour.
Last October, however, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed ordinances seeking to increase the minimum wage and establish earned sick leave for employees in the county.
Starting July 1, the minimum wage in suburban Cook County will increase to $10 an hour and by an additional $1 each subsequent year through 2020. On July 1, 2021 and each July afterwards, the minimum wage will increase by the rate of inflation up to 2.5 percent. If unemployment is over 8.5 percent, however, there will be no increase. The ordinance does not apply to public employers.
Many suburbs, however, are using their home rule powers to opt out of either or both of the county ordinances. That means that private businesses located within their borders would be exempt from paying the county’s higher minimum wage level.
Many officials in those villages argue that the local legislation creates an uneven playing field for businesses and workers within and outside of the county.
“We’re all about the minimum wage, but we don’t want some of our businesses to be disadvantaged,” said Bellwood mayor Andre Harvey during a June 15 phone interview.
Michael Jurusik, an attorney with Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins — which represents numerous villages in the western suburbs, including Maywood — explained during a May 10 board meeting in Maywood that “communities that are opting out want the state to address this in order to create an even playing field.”
“When a community opts out, it creates an uneven playing field not only for employers but for employees,” Jurusik said, before explaining that he wasn’t recommending a particular course of action for the village to take on the matter.
“You can have people in [neighboring] communities working the same job and getting different wages,” he said. “That’s in Cook County. If you’re next to, say, DuPage County, you can have a scenario with three different sets of rules.
“Cook County took a step forward and raised the bar and I applaud them for that, but they’ve created now a patchwork of communities opting out, which [those communities] have a constitutional right to do,” Jurusik said.
Last month, the Illinois House approved House Bill 198, which would create a $15 minimum wage in the state within five years. The bill passed by a vote of 61 to 53.
Under the proposal, the state’s current minimum wage of $8.25 would increase to
$9 on January 1, 2018. The minimum wage would then increase to $10, $11.25, $13 and $15 each subsequent year until 2022. According to a May 30 Crain’s Chicago Business report, the bill also includes a tax break for business with fewer than 50 employees.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has expressed his support of a minimum wage increase but could veto the bill anyway since it isn’t tied to some of his legislative demands.
Some proponents of the county ordinance, however, think that local municipalities should shoulder what they describe as the moral burden of doing right by workers regardless of what the state does. They’ve also argued that the advantages of establishing higher wages outweigh the disadvantages.
“If you pay people a fair wage, people in your community are going to have more economic resources,” said Carol Frischman, an Oak Park resident who joined roughly a dozen people for a June 15 protest in Forest Park organized by members of the Chicago-based Black Workers Matter and Oak Park Call to Action. Earlier this month, Forest Park officials opted out of the county ordinance.
“Which side of what’s right does a community want to be on?” said Dominican Sister Patricia Farrell, OP, who also lives in Oak Park and who attended the demonstration.
The activists cited the results of a 2014 advisory question that asked voters whether they supported increasing the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 to $10 by Jan. 1, 2015. Nearly 64 percent of Illinois residents voted for the ballot measure, with nearly 85 percent of Proviso Township residents voting in favor of the measure.
“Your constituents are the people, not the businesses,” said Lisa Pintado-Vertner, a member of Oak Park Call to Action, during the June 15 demonstration in Forest Park. “They need to look at the facts and figure out who they represent.”
In fairness, the 2014 ballot measure only references a statewide minimum wage. It didn’t ask voters whether they supported a minimum wage increase in the form of the county’s current ordinance.
Small business owners and even nonprofit heads across suburban Cook County have told media outlets that they support a state minimum wage increase that doesn’t create an uneven playing field across municipalities. Some have also noted that they’re already feeling the effects of rising wages.
Steve Manning, the executive director of an Oak Lawn nonprofit that supports the developmentally disabled, told the Chicago Tribune last year that his organization “‘will cease to exist in a couple of years’ if it has to increase employees’ pay significantly without increased reimbursements from the state.”
Illinois has been without a budget for over a year and, according to a June 10 Politico report, has nearly $15 billion in unpaid bills.
But Black Workers Matter activists said that not all employers located in the suburbs would feel squeezed by high wages. The activists took particular aim at Ferrra Candy, the Forest Park-based candy maker that lobbied elected officials in that village to opt out of the county ordinance.
According to the political watchdog organization Illinois Sunshine, Ferrara has donated more than $3,000 since 2003 to Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderon’s campaigns. The company has also donated to the campaigns of local politicians in Bellwood, where it has a manufacturing plant, and to state Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th).
The BWM activists, some of whom are former Ferrara temporary employees, said that 65 percent of the company’s work force is made up of temporary workers who make minimum wage.
A wage increase from $8.25 to $10 could mean an extra $3,600 a year for Ferrra workers, said the activists, who also lambasted the company’s controversial work environment.
In 2016, Ferrara settled a $1.5 million class action discrimination lawsuit by workers who live in Chicago’s Austin community over allegations that the company “exploited Latino immigrant workers” and shut out “U.S.-born blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans,” BWM supporter Dan Giloth noted in a statement.
Ferrara contracts with Elite Staffing and REM, two temporary agencies that have been charged with wage theft.
In a letter addressed to Calderone, Rick Jochums, Ferrara’s vice president of manufacturing, said that his company depends “on employing a large number of entry-level labor positions in our facilities [that] are stable jobs that allow our employees to gain entry-level work experience and establish careers that usually feed into skilled labor roles both in and out of the Ferrara Candy system.”
Jochums said that the county’s wage increase would cost the company’s Forest Park plant $1.5 million within a year and “north of $40 million” over 10 years — a 10 percent increase in business costs.
Stewart — a co-founder of BWM and a former Ferrara temp worker who claims he was fired after he complained that the candy company and temp agencies were conspiring to illegally short his wages — challenged officials in the villages that have opted out of the county increase.
“Why don’t y’all try living on $8.25 an hour,” Stewart said during the June 15 demonstration. “Do it for just 30 days.”