Chicago raises its minimum wage as efforts stall at state level | WBEZ
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Chicago raises its minimum wage as efforts stall at state level

Chicago aldermen have voted 44 to 5 to raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour over the next five years. But a very similar debate is bubbling up in Springfield, where legislation could be passed that would undo the work of the Chicago City Council.

The minimum wage, of course, isn’t a new topic. Illinoisans have been bombarded with talk about the minimum wage, from the campaign trail for Illinois governor to the streets of Chicago where some fast food workers have been protesting about their low wages.

But suddenly last week, there was action from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office.

“Last week, there were rising forces that were talking about not allowing the city to move,” he said Tuesday.

Those forces he referred to are Springfield lawmakers that Emanuel said were going to pull the rug out from under the City Council - locking them out of making any decisions on the city’s minimum wage.

So the day after Thanksgiving, Emanuel announced aldermen would come together for a special meeting Tuesday to vote on his plan to boost the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019. After that, wages would be linked to inflation. Forty-four alderman supported that plan.

“Dixon, Illinois, and Chicago, Illinois, are different economies,” Alderman John Arena (45) said. “So it is right that we are able to manage our affairs on this matter. That we are able to pay workers in Chicago who have higher housing costs, higher heating costs, higher costs of transportation, to have a higher wage to go along with that.”

But five other aldermen say they’re worried about the cost to local business owners. Tom Tunney is both the 44th ward Alderman and owner of Ann Sather restaurants and catering, and according to him, it’s already tough enough for businesses.

“There’s so much pressure on brick and mortar with the internet and how it’s driving prices down. You’ve seen it in your neighborhoods: the card shop is gone. The handy man shop is gone,” he said.

But Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) said the low wage workers can’t wait. Especially since Illinois governor-elect Bruce Rauner’s plan to boost the minimum wage won’t happen overnight.

“They want to do tort reform, tax reform, and a number of other reforms before we get to that - workers compensation. As someone who spent 11 years in Springfield - each and every one of those is a huge undertaking that will not be done quickly. Years will go by,” he said.

The first boost kicks in next July - when the Chicago minimum wage will increase from $8.25 to $10 an hour.

Meanwhile, Illinois state lawmakers are in Springfield for perhaps the final week until the new governor is sworn in next month. A lot of attention has been placed on what the state will do about the minimum wage.

The debate in Springfield has some wondering what it means for their own business, like Dan Costello. He runs Home Run Inn pizza restaurants in multiple locations around Chicago.

One location is in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, which is just a few blocks from the city limits. Costello says Chicago City Council’s vote for a higher minimum wage puts him at a disadvantage to his pizza joint neighbors and it’ll force him to raise prices.

“I think we have a great product, but at the end of the day, can I charge 10, 12, 15 percent more than the guy down the street? I don’t know and that’s what scares me,” he said. 

Costello says he favors raising the minimum wage, he just wants the whole state to raise the wage, too.

“Then we’re all in the same boat,” he said.

On the other side of the city limits is Park Cleaners, a dry cleaners in Evergreen Park. Cindy Custer is behind the counter, greeting customers on a first-name basis.

“So what are you gonna do? You gonna make everybody get jobs in the city because the minimum wage is higher? What’s gonna happen to the people that own businesses in other towns and villages, you know?” she asked.

Both Costello and Custer - and even the mayor of Evergreen Park - feel that they’re at the mercy of what’s decided in Springfield this week. And what lawmakers are up to is still up in the air.

It could undo what Chicago’s City Council passed yesterday, and make one uniform minimum wage rate for the entire state. There’s no guarantee that has enough support, even though a referendum on last month’s ballot asking voters about a higher minimum wage passed by a wide margin.

Lawmakers have until Thursday to pass a bill that would set a new minimum wage, and maybe put Chicago’s wages at the same level as its bordering suburbs.

Follow Lauren Chooljian @laurenchooljian. Follow Tony Arnold @tonyjarnold.

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