Minimum Concern

Last night, with close to 100 other interested spectators, I attended the Wilmette Village Board meeting. The issue that drew virtually all of the audience to the Village Hall was whether or not the Wilmette would opt out of the Cook County new minimum wage plan. I won’t keep you in suspense. The village trustees, with the exception of one board member, Trustee Kurzman, did vote to opt out.

This means that for the foreseeable future the minimum wage in Wilmette will remain the same as the seven-year-old state minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. So, a person working 40 hours a week, every week of the year, you’ll make about $17,000.

The Village Board heard presentations and personal comments from a range of speakers before taking their vote sometime around midnight. (I confess I left at 10:35.) The speakers from the floor included two county commissioners, Commissioner Suffredin who spoke in favor of the new minimum and a Republican commissioner from the far western suburbs whose rambling speech composed mostly of irrelevant data spoke against it. Actually, he was pretty much against regulations in general. There were a number of business owners speaking for and against opting out, and a long line of concerned Wilmette residents who presented differing views.

The spokesperson for the Wilmette Kenilworth Chamber of Commerce was there to present a scenario that pretty much promised a string of failing and fleeing businesses if the increased wage plan was accepted. However, she presented little factual information to support her disastrous predictions, just her opinion. At one point she dismissed the idea of raising the minimum wage as a “warm and fuzzy” concept, or words to that effect. Nice.

More relevant urging to opt out came from a handful of Wilmette business owners. They each expressed concerns that their businesses would suffer financial disruption, or worse, if a higher minimum wage were mandated. However, later in the evening, several business owners spoke passionately about why they thought raising the rate was the right things to do.

Another worry expressed by some was the effect a higher minimum wage would have on hiring teenagers and on the expense of training new employees. But today, I learned more about the ordinance and saw that it makes an exception for such hires, to keep their employment financially attractive. The same goes for hires in the first 90 days on the job to give the employer a chance to evaluate them before committing to the new minimum (or more) wage.

What I found especially interesting last night was that virtually everyone who spoke for opting out, including the C. of C. representative, was happy to admit that virtually all Wilmette’s employers already pay most of their employees considerably more than the minimum.Hearing this, I realized that it’s not like Wilmette businesses were all of a sudden facing an unprecedented and impossible hurdle with the new minimum. Their minimum wage recipients seem to be the exception, not the rule. And as I listened I had the further thought that it’s misleading to present dealing with this minimum wage as a brand new situation. Wilmette employers have dealt with minimum wage standards for decades. It’s the base they’ve always used to determine their higher pay levels.

This got me curious about how long Wilmette’s Chamber of Commerce and our village’s employers have dealt with the present minimum wage in their business plans. It turns out that back in 2006, the Illinois legislature passed legislation to increase the minimum wage from $6.50 to $7.50 an hour starting in July 2007, with a mandated 25- cent increases over the following three years. (I don’t remember a giant 2006 exodus of Wilmette business.) The present $8.25 minimum has been a fact of life for local businesses since 2010. When that level was reached, Illinois’ minimum became the third highest minimum wage in the nation. Today there are twenty states with a higher minimum and eleven of those have future mandated increases. Cook County’s new standard compares with the nation’s top dozen states.

My point is, that Wilmette’s businesses have dealt with minimum wage increases in the past. They have had seven years with the present wage rate woven into their business payroll. In the meantime, the consumer price index affecting their minimum wage workers has risen each year, sometimes at less than one-percent, sometimes as high as three.

History is proof that our local businesses adjusted to a minimum raise increase seven years ago. They dealt with it, competing with quality and unique offerings, and the well-managed  businesses have thrived.

Throughout the evening, the board was reminded that  an advisory referendum on the 2014 ballot showed over 70% of the Wilmette residents were in favor of a living wage standard for Wilmette workers. Now, I don’t believe a referendum vote should ever become the “go to” method for lawmaking in Illinois. Even so, the 2014 referendum was pretty clear. The people of Wilmette recognize that it’s not right to expect our community’s lowest paid workers to serve us while receiving poverty level pay.

The moral argument for a more humane pay standard may have been too tough a sell to the Village Board last night. But it seems to me that the historical facts clearly show that our community’s businesses have already proven they can handle adjusting to a higher minimum wage. They’ve done it in the past without disaster. These are points I wish I had been equipped to make last night. By opting out of the County’s effort to slightly improve the quality of life for our village’s lowest paid, Wilmette’s board just kicked that commendable action down the road for a future board to address.

So let’s see… when should the minimum wage be more than $8.25 in Wilmette? How about in 2020? Maybe, 2025?Perhaps the Wilmette Village Board or the Wilmette Chamber of Commerce should get a 10-year calendar, and mark down a date they think would be the right time to establish a minimum living wage. I’m sure our local workers will be happy to wait.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973 

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