Minimum-wage earners in Illinois could see an increase in their wages after two years of relying on $8.25 an hour, a figure that needs a boost according to many economists, protesters and Illinois legislators.
In February 2011, Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D–4th District) filed Senate Bill 1565, which aims to increase the state’s minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $10.65 by 2014. The bill is now under study by an executive committee that will vote on the bill upon completion of its review.
“Unfortunately, the cost of living is increasing not only in the state of Illinois, but also in other parts of the country,” said Sen. Ira Silverstein (D–8th District), a sponsor of the bill and vice chairperson of the executive committee. “These people are the backbone of the workforce, [and] I think they have to be duly compensated.”
Adam Kader, program director at Arise Chicago, an interfaith worker’s rights group, said the vast majority of people the organization hears from are paid at the minimum-wage level.
“Part of the problem is that the minimum wage is already too low to really raise a family or to make a proper living on,” Kader said. “It isn’t a living wage by any stretch of the imagination.”
According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the bill would provide a raise to more than 1.1 million low-wage workers in Illinois, generating $3.8 billion in increased wages. A minimum wage increase would also boost the economy because minimum-wage earners would have greater disposable income, according to the report.
“[A minimum wage increase] is not only benefitting the workers, but it’s also benefitting the places where they spend [their money],” Kader said. “When high-wage earners get increases in wages, they tend to save or invest, but when low-wage earners get a boost in their pay, they tend to spend.”
According to Kader, the bill would allow future minimum wage increases to be implemented as needed.
“It would be a more scientific way of dealing with minimum wage, meaning it would simply be pegged to the rate of inflation so that as inflation rises here, so would the minimum wage,” he said. “At this point, in order for workers to get the full wage that they need, they have to play politics because you have to pass a whole law.”
While it has been more than a year since the bill was introduced at the 2011 Legislative Session, activists still remain dedicated to the cause and protests are held regularly by members of the Raise Illinois Coalition, a legislative and grassroots campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Action Now, a Chicago-based organization advocating economic change, is one of 33 coalition members. Communications Director Aileen Kelleher quelled misconceptions about minimum-wage earners.
“People have the misconception that the only people who make minimum wage are teenagers, but that’s not
true at all,” Kelleher said.
According to the EPI’s report, only 6.6 percent of minimum-wage earners are teenagers, while 84.2 percent of those earning minimum wage in Illinois are at least 20 years old.
“Families can’t make it on $8.25 an hour, $16,500 a year is not enough.” Kelleher said. “It’s below the poverty line for a
family of three.”
She said citizens impacted by the current minimum wage should be able to have a voice in determining wages but often do not have resources available to make a significant impact.
“This is specifically a bill that would help out ordinary Illinois citizens, and unfortunately they don’t have a lot of political clout,” Kelleher said. “They don’t have lobbyists or the money to pressure legislators into making certain decisions on their behalf.”
According to her, 71 percent of Illinoisans support the bill, which has met some opposition in the executive committee that is currently overseeing the bill.
“We are driving people out of this state that create jobs,” said Sen. John O. Jones (R–54th District), who is on the committee. “And by raising minimum wage, those businesses that can leave Illinois and do business in another state will do it.”
While Jones asserts that job creators will leave Illinois if they are forced to pay employees more, Silverstein argued that wage increase is something business owners will have to adapt to.
“The businesses obviously are going to be objecting,” Silverstein said. “But if they want a good workforce, they’ll have to pay a little more in labor to get their product out or provide good services, and that’s the most important thing.”