BY BRADY CREMEENS | Special to Watchdog.org
CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Wednesday officially introduced to the City Council an ordinance that would increase the minimum wage to $13 an hour and the debate remains heated.
The minimum wage debate has become increasingly heated over recent days in Illinois’ biggest city and throughout the state as fast-food workers threaten to strike if their demands for higher wages aren’t met and small businesses in Chicago seem conflicted about the city’s potential minimum wage increase.
Representatives from small businesses met with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel this week to explain their concerns about the Windy City increasing its minimum wage, citing potential reductions in current employees and future hiring — even though many said they supported a higher minimum wage philosophically.
Wednesday’s ordinance introduction follows a recommendation from the Emanuel-led Minimum Wage Working Group — a compilation of city aldermen, union and business leaders appointed by the mayor. The group voted 13-3 on July 9 in favor of recommending to the city council what amounts to about a 63 percent to the city’s minimum wage.
Three members of the mayor’s task force — including representatives from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce — opposed the increase, citing poor business practice and unemployment concerns.
If approved, the proposed increase would come in stages over the next three and a half years, with the full $13 an hour wage reached in 2018. Restaurant employees and other workers who legally receive a lower salary due to tips would also receive a $1 increase to $5.95 an hour in minimum required base salary.
Kim Maisch is the state director for the Illinois chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and said raising the minimum wage is a bad idea for Chicago.
“Employers only have so much money to spend on labor,” Maisch said. “When the labor costs go up, many will be forced to slow or stop hiring. The vast majority of small businesses in the state are against an increased minimum wage because of this.”
Maisch also said most people won’t be willing to pay the increased prices for goods caused by the increased cost of labor, and will look elsewhere.
“There are many cities surrounding Chicago,” she said. “If significantly increasing the minimum wage causes the price of hamburgers to go up significantly, people will just cross the city border to another town and pay less again.”
Proving this isn’t just an issue in Chicago, a statewide advisory referendum will be on the Nov. 4 ballot asking voters whether Illinois’ minimum wage should be raised to $10 an hour.
Prominent Democrats like Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Simon and Sec. of State Jesse White held a press conference over the weekend to throw their collective support behind Raise Illinois, a group working to increase the state’s minimum wage through advocating affirmative votes on the ballot referendum.
Raise Illinois hopes the results of the referendum show an overwhelming support for a minimum wage.
“This measure is an opportunity to move the conversation about giving low-wage workers better wages while engaging new communities about the need for a fair economy and breathing new life into the democratic process for low-wage workers who have been left behind for too long,” the group said in a press release.
The group says a higher minimum wage will help struggling families more fully participate in the state’s economy, and that the economy will benefit from it as well.
For his part, Gov. Quinn announced he would live off the equivalent of the minimum wage for a short period of time, hoping to garner support for raising it.
The governor cited his understanding of biblical values as justification for the move.
“There’s a principle as old as the Bible,” Quinn told attendees at the press conference. “If you work 40 hours a week, if you’re doing your job, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”
Quinn didn’t say how long he’d live off of a minimum wage equivalent or when he’d start.
While the national minimum wage requirement is $7.25 an hour, some states have wage floors much higher. Illinois’ current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, placing it among the top five states with the highest minimum wage. Chicago’s potential increase to $13 an hour would follow Seattle’s experimental minimum wage rate of $15 an hour enacted earlier this year.
The City Council isn’t expected to act on the minimum wage proposal until after the November election.
Brady Cremeens is a reporter with the Watchdog affiliate, Illinois News Network.