It looked like a huge victory for workers’ rights last October when Cook County followed in the city of Chicago’s footsteps by increasing the minimum wage and requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.
Now, just as those laws are set to go into effect on July 1, that victory has been significantly diminished by suburban officials across Cook County who are racing to exempt their towns from the requirements.
In deference to local business opposition, at least 50 of Cook County’s 132 cities and villages have chosen to opt out of either the minimum wage hike, the sick leave requirement or, the vast majority, both.
And more suburbs are taking up the issue daily.
Cicero voted Tuesday to stick with the lower state minimum wage, but took no action on paid sick leave. Berwyn and La Grange Park were both expected to discuss the matter Tuesday night.
Although most of the opt-outs have come from more conservative communities in Barrington, Palatine and Orland townships, news that progressive Oak Park will consider an opt-out proposal on Monday sent a fresh shiver through supporters of the ordinances who vowed a fight.
Supporters say they are gratified that the “vast majority” of Cook County suburbs are choosing to abide by the ordinances, which will allow workers to earn up to five days paid sick leave and increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour on July 1 — on the way to $13 by 2020.
But that majority is getting less vast by the day.
Local Chambers of Commerce, encouraged by Cook County Republicans, have fueled most of the opposition. They argue employers should not be forced to shoulder the increased costs, and that minimum wage hikes are better left to the state and federal governments.
Of course, business groups generally oppose minimum wage increases at the state and federal level as well.
The Illinois General Assembly recently sent Gov. Bruce Rauner legislation to increase the state minimum wage in steps to $15 an hour by 2022. The current state minimum wage is $8.25.
But I don’t think anybody seriously expects Rauner to sign the measure. I sure don’t.
Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who sponsored the paid sick leave ordinance, and Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin, who pushed the minimum wage increase, both admitted to being surprised by the local pushback that has undermined their victories.
Michael Reever, vice president of government relations for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said the opt-out votes need to be understood in the context of the “cumulative effect of everything Cook County has been putting on businesses.”
Reever laid last year’s county sales tax hike and new beverage tax on that pile, along with the wage increase and sick leave.
Local officials are saying “enough is enough,” Reever said.
Rev. C.J. Hawking of Arise Chicago and Kristi Sanford of the People’s Lobby, organizations that led grass-roots efforts to pass the county ordinances, say those local officials are ignoring local voters who overwhelmingly approved referenda for both a minimum wage increase and paid sick leave.
“It’s actually outrageous that they’re voting to decrease wages,” said Sanford, who vowed to “make examples” of the local officials who voted to opt out of better treatment for the workers in their communities.
“The next place to push back is going to be at the ballot box,” Gainer agreed. “It’s not something I think people are going to forget.”
Those threats will ring hollow in suburbs where local officials were just re-elected in April and now have four more years before they face voters again, but that’s the right idea.
If people want a higher minimum wage and paid sick leave, they’ll need to fight for them. Oak Park might be a good place to make a stand.