Why many minimum wage workers in suburbs won't be getting a raise July 1

Editor's note: This story was changed to say that under the county’s sick leave ordinance, workers are eligible for up to five days of paid sick leave each year.

Some minimum wage workers in Cook County will get a $1.75 hourly raise and paid sick days July 1, but it depends where they work.

A Daily Herald survey of 134 municipalities in suburban Cook County shows more than two-thirds - by vote of local village boards and councils - have opted out of two county ordinances that would raise the minimum wage and mandate businesses pay employees up to five sick days. Some towns are scheduled to take votes this week, before the county ordinances take effect Saturday.

Nearly 20 percent have decided to follow the county rules, while the remainder have taken no position, meaning the ordinances will take effect unless there is last-minute action.

While businesses and chambers of commerce have lobbied municipalities to opt out, advocacy groups such as Arise Chicago and The People's Lobby have been pushing local officials to allow the ordinances to stand.

The advocacy effort follows approval of the measures by Cook County commissioners in October - modeled off similar Chicago ordinances. It mirrors national efforts in cities such as New York City, Los Angeles and Minneapolis - among 28 municipalities to have passed sick leave rules of their own - and the Fight for $15 movement that's called on employers to provide higher wages.

The fight has now come to the suburbs, pitting business against labor, businesses in Cook County against businesses across the border, and politicians in the suburbs against those in the city.

Businesses complain that higher labor costs could be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods, while the additional regulations would increase administrative costs in tracking who receives paid sick days.

"They didn't tell us how to administer this," said Richard Rutkowski, president of La Marche Manufacturing Co., in Des Plaines.

Workers such as Rosa Ramirez of Elgin say the county ordinances would help her make ends meet. She's attended board meetings to implore local mayors and trustees to follow the county.

"It upsets me that many times our elected officials don't take the time to put themselves in our shoes to endure what low-wage workers have to endure," she said.

The effort to implement a local minimum wage and sick day requirements follows a nationwide trend of state and local governments passing their own laws regulating labor and employment during the past two decades, said Michael LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations.

LeRoy said local minimum wage rules can be effective in a large city like Chicago because it's a relatively defined labor market, where employees have a higher cost of living and employers are aware of the costs to do business. But he says it's not ideal to have varying regulations from one suburban municipality to the next.

"I think it's regrettable you get this kind of confusion or inconsistency," he said.

Who's in? Who's out?

Most towns along the North Shore - and a cluster in the western suburbs - have decided to follow the county's minimum wage ordinance, which will increase minimum pay from the state-mandated $8.25 to $10 an hour starting July 1, then to $11 a year later, $12 in 2019, and $13 in 2020.

In towns that have opted out, the current minimum will apply. Almost all those towns are also opting out of the sick leave rules, which would require most private employers to offer up to five days of paid sick leave a year.

The 65 square miles of unincorporated areas don't have an option, making some places islands surrounded by areas that have opted out.

What's resulted is a patchwork of laws throughout the 1,635-square-mile county, with many cases where businesses and employees on the opposite side of the street will operate under different rules. That's angering supporters and opponents of the county ordinances.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has blasted the opt-out towns, calling them "extremely shortsighted and self-centered" and saying their "spirit of cooperation is lacking" despite the county's fiscal support of business tax incentives and transportation projects. "We shouldn't live in a country in which people work 40 hours a week and live in poverty," she said.

Sean Morrison

Commissioner Sean Morrison, one of three suburban Republicans to vote against both county ordinances, called the rules an "abysmal overreach" and potentially illegal. He cited an October state's attorney's opinion that the county lacks authority to enact a minimum wage ordinance.

Morrison, who represents 32 towns on the western edge of the county, said the ordinances would especially hurt businesses near the border. Officials in neighboring counties "are sitting there just laughing and loving it," he said.

Pro vs. con

Minimum wage and sick leave have been hard-fought issues in towns such as Arlington Heights and Palatine, with impassioned debates among trustees, residents, businesses, workers and activists. Officials in both towns voted to opt out of the ordinances. In Des Plaines, the city council voted to stay in but then reversed its decision in the face of pressure from the business community.

In other places, such as Schaumburg and Rosemont, both corporate meccas, opt-out ordinances sailed through with no discussion.

Towns that straddle the county border, such as Barrington, Buffalo Grove and Elgin, were also quick to opt out. They feared businesses in the Cook County portions of their towns would be at a competitive disadvantage to those in neighboring Lake and Kane counties.

Toni Preckwinkle

Preckwinkle sent representatives from her office to some local board meetings. She credited workers' rights groups for organizing protests to pressure local officials.

The Rev. C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, said the group has been active in more than 25 municipalities, where local residents in many cases have asked organizers to attend meetings to help persuade elected officials.

They say they want local officials to take action because state and federal leaders haven't. A proposal to hike the state minimum wage to $15 by 2022 passed the General Assembly last month. Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he'd be open to an increase, but only with other regulatory changes.

Hawking also said most suburban voters supported a higher state minimum wage and paid sick days in nonbinding referendums.

"I think the term 'opt out' is language that does not fully convey the decision village trustees are making," Hawking said. "In essence, workers are going to receive these rights July 1. Some village boards are deciding to take those rights away from workers."

Much of the opposition has been formed by chambers of commerce, who've argued the ordinances place an undue burden on businesses because of increased labor and administrative costs and that they could lead to higher prices for products and services. Many also do not want county officials dictating what suburban businesses should do, saying such issues should be addressed at federal or state levels.

"It is difficult enough trying to get businesses to locate in Cook County without adding any additional hardships to employers trying to maintain or expand their operations," said Linda Ballantine, executive director of the Rolling Meadows Chamber of Commerce. "Continually adding more costly rules, regulations and nonbudgeted mandates on a state, county or local level only diminishes their ability to remain competitive or expand."

Political fallout

For some suburbs, especially those Northwest and Southwest, the opt-outs represent a repudiation of what they see as a mandate from a distant, Chicago-oriented county government. It's a familiar refrain from some officials, who've argued the county often ignores suburban interests.

Morrison, who is also chairman of the Cook County Republican Party, said the minimum wage and sick leave ordinances are examples of "social progressive policy" he believes the county shouldn't be legislating.

But Preckwinkle says dealing with public health falls under the auspices of county government. "It's appropriate, good public policy," she said.

U of I's LeRoy takes a different view. He says despite more and more state and local employment rules, he believes the best-case scenario is to have federal law create "uniformity of economic conditions."

"The main theme seems to be if you can't legislate at the federal level, then pretend our local government has sovereign powers that are similar as the federal government."

• Daily Herald staff writers Anna Marie Kukec and Lauren Rohr contributed to this report.

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