Downstate retailers propose smaller minimum wage outside Chicago

  • Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, speaks during a news conference Monday in Springfield about his organization's opposition to a bill that would raise the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025.

    Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, speaks during a news conference Monday in Springfield about his organization's opposition to a bill that would raise the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. Jerry Nowicki/ Capitol News Illinois photo

By Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois
Updated 2/12/2019 7:58 AM

SPRINGFIELD -- A group of Downstate business owners on Monday warned of dire consequences should a $15 per-hour minimum wage hike which passed the Senate last week become law without changes.

Several members of the he Illinois Retail Merchants Association and Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association spoke of layoffs, businesses leaving the state and cutbacks in staff benefits, while advocating for a plan that would make the minimum wage rate $4 lower per hour in downstate counties than in Chicago.


"Treating the rest of the state as if it has the same strengths as Chicago is simply illogical," Rob Karr, IRMA's president and CEO, said. "No one else has 55 million visitors a year."

Karr said two-thirds of Illinois' population is within a 40-minute drive to bordering states, which could cause shoppers to spend their money elsewhere. Don Welge, president and CEO of Gilster-Mary Lee, a family and privately held food manufacturer headquartered in Chester, said businesses will begin doing the same.

"It's just an open invitation to move operations out of the state of Illinois," Welge said.

Welge said Illinois already has higher workers' compensation and unemployment insurance rates than surrounding states, costing $600 more per employee annually than in Missouri.

"Everything we've opened up recently has been in Missouri," he said. "We started in Illinois. We have a lot of loyalty to the state of Illinois, but we can begin to move and we will begin to move."

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As it is written now, Senate Bill 1 would raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 over a six-year period, starting with a $1 increase in January 2020, then a 75-cent increase in July 2020, bringing the wage up to $10. Another dollar would be added to the wage every January until 2025.

The group said it was not against raising the wage, but the current structure -- particularly the increase of $2.75 in the first calendar year -- was too steep and too quick.

They argued for a regional alternative -- a $15 rate in Chicago within five years, a $13 rate in the suburbs within seven years and an $11 rate for downstate communities within five years.

But Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), Senate Bill 1's sponsor in the House, said last week he expects his chamber to pass the bill without further amendment.


"All of us in the House, or at least all of us on the Democratic side in the House, are working to get this done," he said. "I anticipate us having discussions about the bill that was sent to us, and I suspect that that's the bill we are going to vote on and I think that's the bill we will pass."

Senator Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat who ushered the bill's passage in the Senate, had questions of the constitutionality of a regional rollout and said all Illinois workers deserve equal pay for equal work.

"How do you decide that someone down in Danville, who needs to make $14.60 today, how do you tell them that they should be held lower than $15 in 2025?" she asked in her floor speech during the bill's passage last week.

But the business owners at Monday's news conference, including Karen Conn of Conn's Hospitality Group which operates retail, lodging and restaurant locations across central Illinois, said these downstate workers could be adversely affected.

"I think there's a trickle-down effect that's going to add to the economic pain here," Conn said. "Our products we buy from farmers, it goes to a processor, it goes to a distributor, it comes to us. There's going to be four tiers of price increases, so I'm going to be forced to raise my prices."

Mike Monseur, who also owns restaurants in Springfield, agreed.

"I'm scared for my company, staff and the future of my community and state," Monseur said. "How much will people be willing to pay for a pizza? I can only raise my prices so much before people stop buying my product. Many businesses like mine will be forced to turn out the lights."

Sandy Schoenborn, who owns the Lincoln Theatre in Belleville, said wages at her business which employs about 20 people would go from 26 percent to more than half of her expenses.

"My prices will have to double within five years to keep up," she said.

The group also warned of the compounded effects of added costs from property taxes which could see a spike if schools decide to raise their levies to pay the increased rate to minimum-wage employees.

A pair of downstate hotel general managers who are members of the IHLA also warned of raised rates, which would affect rates paid by the state for employees that are reimbursed for travel.

Darin Dame, general manager of the Residence Inn in Springfield, said his rates would have to go up from $86 to $125. Michelle McConnell, general manager of the Holiday Inn and Suites in Bloomington, said some on her staff could see benefit cuts because of the added cost of business.

"The value of the dollar as it is today isn't going to be the same as it is in 2025," she said.

All of this together, Karr said, could prove dire for downstate Illinois.

"This wage increase wouldn't occur in a vacuum, as tax hikes and added regulations have forced businesses to deal with escalating costs year after year," he said. "We've said all along that we are open to a compromise to lessen the burden on businesses so they can continue to serve their communities and employ workers. We implore lawmakers to heed these stories for the sake of our state's economic future."

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