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Should Illinois boost its minimum wage?

Low-wage workers would like a raise

Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 10:49 p.m. CST
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Christine Labuta, 55, of Joliet Quote to use alongside photo: “Yes, it needs to be raised ... People are doing the best they can. It's not enough. They're struggling."
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John Tezak, 70, of Joliet Quote to use alongside photo: “There's pros and cons, but I think it'll keep even more people out of work. I think we should keep it the way it is now. Maybe we could raise it a little, but not to $10."
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Renee Cunningham, 41, of Joliet Quote to use alongside photo: "Gas is going up. Food is going up. Rent is going up. Everything is going up, so wages should go up. You want people off public aid assistance? You want people to get out there and work? It would help if you paid us a little more so we afford things on our own."

If it were up to 40-year-old Joseph Ezell, the state would raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour – a wage high enough for him to support his wife and four children.

“I’m a perfect example. My job don’t pay enough,” said Ezell, who works as a part-time line cook at a Joliet restaurant, earning 25 cents above the state’s current $8.25 minimum wage. “It’s terrible.”

Illinois voters such as Ezell will get a chance to voice their opinion on raising the minimum wage under a ballot measure signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last month. The Nov. 4 non-binding ballot question will ask whether Illinois should hike its minimum wage – currently the fourth highest in the U.S. – for people older than 18 to $10 by 2015.

Several business leaders have argued the hike would kill jobs and make Illinois less competitive with neighboring states, while supporters say raising the wage would help boost the economy and set a “livable wage” for working people.

John Greuling, president and CEO for the Will County Center for Economic Development, said he believes raising the minimum wage would be a bad move. It would cause a ripple effect, he said, leading businesses to “pass along whatever cost they can,” which would, in turn, lead to higher-priced products and services.

Businesses would be hard-pressed by employees already making more than minimum wage to increase their salaries, too, he said, while under-skilled, unemployed people would find it more difficult to find work. It would force employers to lay off workers or hire fewer people, he said.

“Those are the folks that will be hurt the most,” Greuling said. “I’ve talked to a number of retailers that are looking at how they can continue to shed workers at the entry level because of the concern over [Illinois and other states] discussing an increase in minimum wage.”

Renee Cunningham, 41, of Joliet argued the current minimum isn’t keeping up with inflation.

“Gas is going up. Food is going up. Rent is going up. Everything is going up, so wages should go up,” she said. “You want people off public aid assistance? You want people to get out there and work? It would help if you paid us a little more so we could afford things on our own.”

Cunningham said she lives with her mother, has three children and is looking for steady employment. Even when she worked full time, she said it wasn’t enough to support her family.

“There are days I drop my head down to the floor thinking, ‘When am I going to come out of this hole?’ ” she said. “It’s hard. It’s rough.”

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research attempts to debunk business groups’ claims that a wage boost would harm the economy and kills jobs. According to the study, the 13 states that raised their baseline wages at the start of the year showed stronger economic growth than the 37 states that didn’t.

But Greuling said the study doesn’t account for other factors.

“What else is going on in that economy? I think you can’t just say if you raise minimum wage, it’ll be good for business or it’s going to be bad for business. It’s not that simple,” Greuling said.

In Chicago, a task force led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel recommended this week that the city go a step further and raise its minimum wage to $13 an hour, phasing it in over a four-year period. Critics include Rob Karr, president of the Chicago Retail Merchants Association. Such a hike would increase a retailer’s labor costs by more than 57 percent and kill jobs, Karr said in a news release issued Tuesday.

“Chicago employers will have to cut costs, and that likely means fewer hours or no hours for the most vulnerable employees – those without the education or skills necessary to advance in the modern workplace,” Karr said in the news release.

That’s not how Christine Labuta, 55, of Joliet, sees it. She said she believes the minimum wage should be increased for everyone.

“People are doing the best they can. It’s not enough,” Labuta said. “They’re struggling.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Illinois’ $8.25 minimum wage rate ranks fourth-highest in the nation and is $1 over the federal rate of $7.25.

Washington, D.C., and 41 states have baseline wages higher than or equal to the federal level, while four states have baseline wages below $7.25. Five states do not have an established baseline wage.

Minimum wage rates• $8.25 — Illinois• $7.50 — Missouri• $7.40 — Michigan• $7.25 — Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

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