This week I’m going to narrow the focus of my comments to an issue involving just one New Trier community, Wilmette. Although in a broader sense I know this local controversy is relevant to not only every town in our region but every community in America.
I’m talking about Wilmette’s debate over its village board’s decision to opt out of the Cook County government’s minimum wage mandate for employees of businesses in our county. (That opt-out also included not adopting a sick days policy for hourly workers.)
In case you are aren’t already familiar with the details of this debate, here they are: Presently, Illinois’ minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Cook County’s “home rule status” has allowed its board to increase that minimum wage for workers in our county (a more expensive place to live than Macomb or Decatur). The first increase, to $10 an hour, took effect July 1, 2017. This summer the minimum will rise to $11. It will go up to $12 in July 2019 and hit $13 an hour in 2020.
Subsequent annual increases will be at the rate of inflation, not to exceed 2.5 percent. Lower wage provisions have also been made for new employees during a trial period, for student part-time workers and for workers earning tips. The new sick time policy mandates that hourly employees are eligible for five days of paid sick leave (non-cumulative) per calendar year.
When the county board established these new standards, all Cook County suburbs were given the option to opt out of participation. The Wilmette Board did. To some extent, the Board’s decision was surprising since it seemed to go against the will of Wilmette voters who had already expressed their support for some level of “reform.”
In the November 4, 2014 election, voters were given the opportunity to vote “Yes” or “No” on the following advisory, non-binding referendum question: Shall the minimum wage in Illinois for adults over the age of 18 be raised to $10 per hour by January 1, 2015? Over 66% of New Trier voters said “Yes” and nearly 71% of Wilmette voters were for it.
The same support was shown for “Earned Sick Time” in the November 8, 2016 General Election: Nearly 70% of New Trier voters and nearly 74% of Wilmette voters voted “Yes.”
In the months since the Board’s original opt-out decision, Wilmette Board President Bielinski has called for further study of the situation. A “working group” of well regarded volunteers – some I know and respect – was commissioned to take a deeper look, gathering data for the board’s use. The group also suggested that the board do a survey of residents and businesses. Unfortunately, the board’s survey simply used an email link to a website. This website survey had no log-in, no controls for identifying the respondents and was very susceptible to “stuffing the ballot box.” Perhaps such a fear is groundless, but it was a sloppy way to handle such an important task. Not surprisingly, that survey showed a majority quite happy with the way things are.
So here’s my take on all of this. In 2017, I attended the first Wilmette Village Board Meeting that invited public comments. What I saw was a Chamber of Commerce representative and a number of local business owners speaking passionately for opting out. While another group of business owners and residents were equally passionate about accepting the County plan – many because they felt it was simply the right thing to do. (Why should an affluent community like ours insist the workers who serve us do their jobs for near poverty wages?)
What I also observed at that meeting was that a number of the “opt-out” merchants as well as the Chamber of Commerce rep seemed to accept that the present minimum is too low. They readily admitted that virtually all Wilmette employers already pay most employees more than minimum wage.
But although those “opt-out” speakers, as well as some members of the Village Board, accepted the idea that good workers deserve a fair wage, they appeared to treat a new minimum wage mandate as if it were an unprecedented proposition – a radical concept. This is when I concluded that this debate is not just about the business economics. It’s about personal philosophies. A right wing view of the world that seems to view any government effort to influence the living standards of the poorest among us as a threatening activity. Sadly, a number of people who reflect this view don’t even know they’ve been sucked into it.
Wilmette employers have dealt with minimum wage standards for decades. Our village’s present $8.25 minimum was the third stage of an incremental Illinois wage raise that began in 2007, rising from $6.50 to $7.50 an hour that year. After that, annual 25-cent increases rose to our present $8.25 rate in 2010. That’s right. Today’s minimum wage has not risen for eight years! Are the prices of things you buy the same as they were eight years ago?
Opponents of any minimum wage change paint the picture that proceeding with the county’s plan would be a disaster for Wilmette businesses. But it’s been almost a year since the new wage standard was accepted by our North Shore neighbors, Evanston, Kenilworth, Winnetka and Glencoe. I haven’t noticed their business districts collapsing.
Next month, on Tuesday, June 26, Wilmette’s board will once again meet to hear statements from Wilmette business owners, Chamber of Commerce reps and Wilmette residents, for and against continuing the Village’s opt out decision. It’s not too late for Wilmette to join its North Shore neighbors and do the right thing.
The issue of wage stagnation and disappearing worker benefits is a national scandal. If you do live in Wilmette, this is an issue where your involvement can have an impact right now. If Wilmette’sminimum wage doesn’t gain parity with our North Shore neighbors now, then when? 2020? Maybe, 2025? What’s your philosophy on this?
NTDO member since 1973
Here’s what you can do right now:
Contact each Wilmette Village Board member and tell them your views on raising the minimum wage for the lowest paid workers in Wilmette. Then mark you calendar to attend the June 26 Wilmette Village Board meeting. For contact information and more details on this issue just click here.