Quick Hit Michael Sandler Friday July 12th, 2013, 11:07am

Wage Against the Machine: Chicagoans Demand Minimum Wage Increase

On Thursday afternoon, a group of protesters converged outside of the James R. Thompson Center to continue the call for a raise of Illinois’ minimum wage.

At the rally, speakers from policy groups including Stand Up! Chicago, Action Now, and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability urged state lawmakers and business owners to work together to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 per hour. Illinois’ rate is the fourth-highest in the nation, behind Vermont, Oregon and Washington. Gov. Pat Quinn supports an increase to the minimum wage, calling for 20 percent increase to the wage during his State of the State address in February. Meanwhile, a bill proposed back in 2011 (SB 1565) has yet to be voted on.

The ralliers argued that cost of living increases since the last time Illinois raised its minimum wage — which was phased in from 2006 to 2010 — need to be accounted for. Elizabeth Parisian, policy director for Stand Up! Chicago, said a two-parent, two-child family would have to earn just over $69,000 annually to make ends meet, and a one-parent, one-child household would have to earn just under $49,000 to sustain themselves in the current economy. Parisian said Stand Up! Chicago is asking the state to increase the minimum wage to $10.60 per hour.

“Low wage and minimum wage workers need a raise. And so any effort to bump their pay is good for the economy,” said Parisian, who also argued that workers will spend more if their income levels rise.

Citizens attending the rally were encouraged to enter their wages into the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) Family Budget Calculator, which determines the dollar amount necessary for a Chicago family to maintain economic stability. The tool also helped families calculate how deep in the red they are when it comes to their bills and budgets.

EPI recently released a report, What Families Need to Get By: The 2013 Update of EPI’s Family Budget Calculator”, using the updated tool to tabulate the amount of income six household types would need in order to be economically stable while living in Chicago. The report considered housing, food, transportation, taxes, health care, child care, and other necessities. The report found that child care is a major financial hurdle for families, with a one-parent, three-child household needing to spend at least $1,779 a month for adequate care. In addition to a minimum wage increase, human rights advocates say there is a need for quality, affordable child care, which would greatly assist low-income families when it comes to achieving economic stability.

Michelle Young, president of Action Now, put a face to the numbers that the budget calculator computes. Young and her husband have two teenage children. She has to visit a food pantry once a month to keep her family fed. Young said she worked in the insurance industry before a company merger sent her to early retirement. Since then, she has worked odd jobs to support her husband, who had to leave his position as a building engineer due to illness. Her husband collects disability, but Young says paying his medical bills has been a challenge. The Youngs also have a daughter headed to college, and luckily she received a full scholarship.

“That was a blessing,” said Young. “We shouldn’t have to fight for minimum wage. We’re just surviving, not striving.”

Young said low-wage employees work hard, and are the ones who keep a business’ doors open. She disagrees with the notion that in these tough economic times, companies can’t afford to pay their employees a living wage. “Businesses are booming, and they aren’t being affected by it. The workers are,” she said.

But Young’s views on minimum wage face some opposition.

Jay Shattuck, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s Employment Law Council, said the group is opposed to a minimum wage hike. He said businesses will either reduce hours or cut jobs completely to compensate for the increase, and small businesses especially would be affected. Shattuck, who owns a consulting firm, had a clear message for protesters who believe companies have the money to spend.

“They should become small business owners themselves and find out how difficult it is,” he challenged. “You put a lot more hours in than a lot of these people think.”

Shattuck also said the state has to consider how it wants to position itself moving forward. He said Illinois must consider if it’s willing to have a higher minimum wage than states it’s competing against for businesses. Shattuck added that the Chamber is flexible and has offered solutions, such as changing state laws regarding training wages. He admitted making ends meet on a low wage is difficult, and said the best way to escape a minimum wage job is to get additional training.

A state legislator who could ultimately decide the fate of the wage increase, State Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Plainfield), said her constituents are split down the middle on the issue. Holmes, who is vice-chairperson of the Labor and Commerce Committee, said owners of mom-and-pop grocery stores in her district would face economic hardship if an increase passed.

“If a business has to pay its employees more, they’ll raise prices elsewhere,” said Holmes.

Nonetheless, human rights advocates say lawmakers, business owners and employers must find a happy medium on creating a minimum, living wage in order to protect the state's welfare in the long run.

“The fact that hardworking families are struggling to make ends meet, even with minimum-wage jobs, makes clear how crucial it is for state lawmakers to support raising the minimum wage,” said Kimberly Drew, from Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights. “It is, without a doubt, the most immediate and substantial investment Illinois can make in the lives of working families to give them a boost.”


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