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EDITORIAL: A better way to go than Cook County’s checkerboard of minimum wages

Demonstrators fighting for a $15-per-hour minimum wage march through downtown during rush hour on May 23 in Chicago. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Demonstrators fighting for a $15-per-hour minimum wage march through downtown during rush hour on May 23 in Chicago. | Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Cook County Board never saw it coming, but it has created enormous confusion for dozens of suburbs and local businesses.

There has to be a better way, and it’s probably to be found in Springfield.

On July 1, the county increased the minimum wage to $10 an hour, up $1.75 from the state-mandated minimum of $8.25. But many municipalities are choosing to opt out of the wage hike within their borders — whether or not they are home-rule towns — and the result is an increasingly crazy checkerboard of minimum wages. Businesses are exasperated.


The best solution would be to hike the minimum wage at the state level, creating an equal playing field for every town, or better yet hike the wage at the national level. There is a bill on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk that would hike the state minimum wage, but he is not likely to sign it. We get that. At $15 an hour, it would be an awfully stiff hike, even for many Democrats, though we urge bipartisan support for some sort of increase.

Chicago, we should note, has boosted its minimum wage to $11, and it will go up to $13 in in 2019. Cook County’s minimum wage will go up to $13 a year later, in 2020.

In Cook County, however, an estimated 100 or so of the county’s 134 municipalities have voted to keep the minimum wage at $8.25 within their borders. They also have voted to nullify a companion to the county wage hike, the establishment of a minimum of five paid sick days a year for every worker.

Other communities, most notably Evanston, Skokie and Oak Park, have made a point of voting to accept the Cook County wage hike and sick-days minimum.

Without intending to, the Cook County Board, which never expected so many towns to opt out, is running an experiment on the impact of higher minimum wages on a local economy. Academics might love it and we could learn a lot. But no municipality or business wants to be on the losing end of that test.

The Illinois Constitution says that when there is a conflict between a municipal home-rule ordinance and a county ordinance, the municipal ordinance prevails within its borders. But many of the suburbs that have voted against raising the minimum wage do not have home rule powers and do not appear to have the authority to opt out.

A lawsuit is expected to be filed next week to prevent non-home rule communities from opting out. The lawsuit also is expected to question whether even home rule communities can opt out.

Legal niceties aside, if the county has to go to court to force dozens of towns to abide by an ordinance, it is a horribly designed ordinance.

In the real world, a minimum wage of $8.25 long ago became inadequate, especially given the number of working adults who now depend on that minimum to pay the rent and clothe their children. A higher minimum — federally, ideally, but at least statewide — is overdue.

If Rauner vetoes the $15 minimum, as expected, we would hope he then works with the Legislature — and the Legislature works with him — to settle on a higher minimum that is more acceptable to all.