Chicago May Fast-Track $15 Minimum Wage, Phase Out Lower Tipped Wage

Chicago City Hall
Chicago's City Hall. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Chicago City Hall
Chicago's City Hall. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago May Fast-Track $15 Minimum Wage, Phase Out Lower Tipped Wage

Advocates and aldermen renewed their push Tuesday to bring Chicago’s minimum wage to $15 an hour years sooner than the rest of Illinois.

The move would fulfill one of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign promises and build on a phased-in bump to the minimum wage passed by her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel.

Although state law will increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, Chicago’s proposed ordinance would increase the hourly wage to $14 next year and to $15 by 2021.

“The goal is to raise the floor so that everyone can flourish,” said Teofilo Reyes, the research director with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which advocates for better working conditions in the industry.

Five years ago, Chicago’s minimum wage was $8.25 an hour. Currently, it’s $13 and is set to increase at the rate of inflation beginning next July.

But the merits of a higher minimum wage took the back burner at a hearing inside City Hall Tuesday, as aldermen, business leaders, and workers discussed a more controversial part of the proposal: eliminating the lower minimum wage for tipped employees, such as servers and bartenders, by 2023.

“I love the food industry, but the food industry doesn’t love me anymore because I’m not a size 5 and I’m sure not 25 [years old],” said Honni Harris, a restaurant worker who spoke before the hearing.

Ald. Sophia King, 4th Ward, the lead sponsor of the ordinance, said tipped jobs that have a different minimum wage are rooted in racism and disproportionately hurt people of color and women.

“A tip is meant to be extra, it’s not meant to be what you count on from your employer,” King said. “The burden shouldn’t be on the employee to receive a wage that you deem or say is sufficient.”

Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, opposed the ordinance and said no tipped employee in Chicago should be making less than the minimum wage.

Toia and other opponents of the measure raised concerns about ever-increasing taxes and mandates, including the city’s new paid sick leave laws and a recently approved measure requiring employers to give workers at least two weeks notice of their schedule.

“Restaurants have very little room to absorb massive increases in labor costs and still remain in business,” Toia said.

Toia and Ald. Nicolas Sposato, 38th Ward, both also cautioned the City Council to consider what the measure would mean for parts of the city near the suburbs or Indiana, where diners or workers could simply cross a border to save money

But some aldermen, like King, dismissed the objections from the restaurant industry.

“When we went up to $13 [an hour], we had the same type of response as well and nobody went belly up and the restaurant industry has grown,” King said.

One big unknown is how much the measure might cost the city as it stares down a projected $838 million deficit next year. King said they are still figuring that out, but noted that there’s support from a majority of aldermen and the mayor. She said she expects the proposal will get a vote in October.

Currently, the city’s Office of Labor Standards is in charge of enforcing the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other workforce-related laws.

“Frankly, I don’t understand why the city is spending so much money and time on instituting things… to make sure that restaurants are complying,” said Ali Baker, a restaurant worker who testified Tuesday. “Why not just raise the (minimum) wage overall and eliminate a lot of the bureaucracy?”

Lightfoot’s spokeswoman Anel Ruiz said the mayor “remains committed to working with advocates, labor and City Council to develop legislation for a $15 minimum wage by 2021.” She did not comment on eliminating the existence of a different wage for tipped workers.