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Preckwinkle outlines plan to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Friday, January 11, 2019.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Friday, January 11, 2019. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The “Fight for $15” won’t be much of a fight if County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is elected mayor.

Preckwinkle on Tuesday outlined a plan to raise Chicago’s minimum wage — currently set at $12 an hour and due to rise to $13 an hour on July 1 — in 50-cent increments until it reaches $15 an hour “no later than July 2021 and possibly earlier” when the cost of living is factored in.

Once the $15-an-hour benchmark is reached, Chicago’s Office of Labor Standards would conduct an annual review of the minimum wage to “monitor economic conditions and living standards and propose further increases in the minimum wage as warranted.”

The newly created office would also be beefed up, paving the way for random audits to make certain Chicago employers are complying with the minimum wage.

Two years ago, Inspector General Joe Ferguson accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of falling down on the job of enforcing Chicago’s minimum wage law, allowing three subcontractors to underpay their employees by $291,816 over a three-year period.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker campaigned on a promise to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. He renewed the promise in his inaugural address, calling it one of his top priorities.

That begs the question for Preckwinkle, an early Pritzker supporter: Why not wait for the state to do the heavy lifting to avoid putting Chicago at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to surrounding suburbs?

“Chicago’s the economic engine for the state. We can set our own economic policies. And furthermore, who knows when or whether the state’s gonna do anything?” Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle noted that the increase would affect 400,000 minimum-wage earners in Chicago, who now must work 80 hours-a-week “just to purchase basic necessities.”

“We have to ensure that working families are thriving and not just getting by. Fifteen dollars an hour takes a family of four just above the poverty line. We owe it to our workforce to try to ensure that people who work hard every day make enough to support their families,” she said.

Nearly all of the candidates vying to replace Emanuel favor raising Chicago’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Bill Daley and fired Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy are the exceptions.

“As a human being, I endorse a living wage. . . . I’d love to pay people a ton of money. But it’s really hard when I’m losing money. That’s going to really hurt small businesses, and it’s not going to have the effect that people expect,” said McCarthy, who has a private security company.

“If we keep raising the minimum wage, we’re gonna have to cut hours. Which means that people are not going to be making more money. It’s very difficult for me to go back to my clients and say, ‘I have to pass along another $2 an hour.’ The clients are going to say . . . “We don’t have any more money to put into security, so we’re gonna have to cut hours.'”

McCarthy noted that Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign has been endorsed and bankrolled by SEIU, the Chicago Teachers Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 881.

“We know who she’s beholden to. She’s beholden to the unions. She’s beholden to the ACLU. And the things that they’re putting out there are just insane,” McCarthy said.

“Eliminating the gang database? I mean — data-driven policing has it that, if you’re a criminal, we need to know who you are. If there’s problems with the database, fix it. Don’t eliminate it.”

Daley, the son and brother of Chicago mayors, said he wants to “complete the implementation” of a $13-an-hour minimum wage “before we discuss additional changes.”

Preckwinkle countered that her pledge to introduce an ordinance “accelerating Chicago’s minimum wage increase within three months after her inauguration” was part of a “longstanding commitment” to progressive causes–not a political payback to the unions.

Even so, SEIU Healthcare Illinois President Greg Kelley was quick to praise Preckwinkle’s plan to put “money right into the pockets of those most likely to go out and spend it.” Beneficiaries include “healthcare and child care professionals represented by our union,” he said.

“Purchasing food, filling up a gas tank, paying rent, and worrying about one’s child having a warm winter coat keep too many Chicago moms and dads up at night. Despite getting up and going to work day in and day out, their paychecks still don’t stretch far enough,” Kelley said in statement.

On the eve of the 2015 election, Emanuel persuaded the City Council to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019 to help him shed the “Mayor 1%” label and undercut the progressive base of his strongest challengers.

The arguments McCarthy made Tuesday are similar to the dire warnings made on that day on the City Council floor prior to the 44-to-5 vote.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather Restaurants, argued for a lesser increase that would create a level playing field statewide — not a dramatically higher increase in Chicago that would put small businesses struggling to stay alive amid increased competition from the Internet at a competitive disadvantage.

“Whatever the entry-level wage is, when there is no company, there is no job,” Tunney warned.

“How do you go from $8.25 [an hour] to $13 overnight? You know what you do? You raise the prices and you’ve also got to find ways to do it with less help. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Editor’s note: Some unions and labor organizations have ownership stakes in Sun-Times Media, including the Service Employees International Union, Local No. 1 (SEIU Local 1).