New Minimum Wage Is a Victory, But Challenges Remain

Board President Toni Preckwinkle
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

A new Cook County ordinance that raises the minimum wage to $13 has left some leaders in Chicago’s northwest suburbs unhappy and determined to do something about it. While activists and officials in Cook County are claiming victory with the new law, others are vowing to cling to lower state and federal minimum-wage laws that have been in place for years despite efforts to change them.
On Oct. 26, Cook County commissioners passed the minimum-wage ordinance by a 13-3 vote. Under the law, the minimum wage will gradually increase from $8.25 an hour to $10 an hour next July. The rate would increase by $1 each year until 2020.
In Chicago, officials passed a similar ordinance this year that would raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019. Last year, wage earners in Chicago made $10 an hour. Now, they make $10.50 an hour.
Cook County officials say their new wage ordinance will help struggling families and help individuals survive as the cost of living continues to increase. Low minimum wage standards have been an issue in recent years in major cities throughout the country. In Chicago, officials believe the raises will help the city’s estimated 410,000 wage earners and inject $860 million in the local economy.
Cook County officials believe workers countywide should be entitled to the same earnings. Cook County’s new minimum-wage law applies to the entire county, including unincorporated areas. However, home-rule towns or municipalities can opt out of the increase, Cook County officials say.
That may be a possibility for some city leaders in northwest suburbs who are not happy with the new minimum wage. They have until next July to decide whether to opt out. The northwest suburbs of Elk Grove, Prospect Heights, Palatine and Wheeling are all considering whether they should do so.
Many are looking to state and federal laws to keep the minimum wage in their cities low. In Illinois, the minimum wage is $8.25. The minimum wage on the federal level is $7.25. Many states adopt the federal mandate for minimum wage rates, but Illinois is among a handful of states where the amount is slightly higher.
Conservative Opposition
There have been efforts to raise the minimum wage on the state and federal level in recent years, but such campaigns have failed amid heavy opposition from conservatives who say bigger paychecks would bring hardship on employers and could force some business to close.
In Illinois, State Sen. Kimberly Lightford this year sponsored a bill that would gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2019. Supporters in Springfield say a raise is needed. The state’s living wage for a single adult is $11.08 and $22.96 for an adult with a single child.
The bill passed in the Senate, but the measure stalled in the House.
And one day after Cook County passed the new law, officials in Barrington began putting together an ordinance that would allow local businesses to keep the minimum rate at $8.25 an hour. If approved, the ordinance would state how Barrington would follow state and federal minimum-wage laws and how much wage earners will be paid per hour. One Barrington official said the new Cook County ordinance would apply to half the town.
The Elk Grove Village board is reportedly considering Cook County’s minimum-wage law. The village attorney has been directed to prepare an ordinance stating that the municipality will also use state and federal laws to determine the minimum wage in their city.
Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer told Crain’s Chicago Business that the new minimum-wage law doesn’t seem right. And a Mount Prospect city official says the law is well-intended but “could very well have unintended consequences.”
For Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the new minimum-wage law is at best an attempt to help wage earners where state and federal lawmakers have fallen short.
“The measure approved by the board takes a reasonable approach in raising the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020,” Preckwinkle said. “It phases in over time to provide flexibility for employers to adjust and minimize any impact on their bottom line. At $13 an hour, no one will get rich. But that pay will help people pay their bills.”


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