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Thursday, May 24, 2012 02:38 pm

Increase minimum wage?

Sponsor says it’s important to begin discussions

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A bill that would raise the minimum wage in Illinois is on its way to the full Senate after approval by the Senate Executive Committee.

The legislation would increase Illinois’ minimum wage, currently $8.25, by 50 cents a year until it reaches $10.55. This would match the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968, when it was $1.60 an hour. Then, it would adjust with the cost of inflation each year.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said while the General Assembly passed tax cuts for Illinois businesses last year, it is also important to support the employees of those businesses.

“Many people believe the minimum wage is for teenagers, when in fact over 84 percent of minimum-wage employees are adults,” Lightford said. “I think it’s really important that if you are willing to work a 40-hour week, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty. An individual working 40 hours a week on our current minimum wage makes $16,000 a year.”

Caprice Procarione, a student at University of Illinois Springfield who works two minimum-wage jobs in Springfield, testified during the hearing in support of the bill because it will allow minimum-wage employees to have a “livable wage.”    

“Not only do I pay my regular bills, but I also have to choose between putting gas in my car and paying for my medicine, which is due to my illnesses. I need both in order to work and receive my wages,” Procarione said during the hearing. “When you (businesses) provide livable wages for your workers you are going to have a healthier work force.”

Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, who opposed the bill, said the legislation would make employees too expensive for employers. It would give Illinois the highest minimum wage in the country.

“I appreciate the allure of having more money to pay your bills and I wish we had the kind of economy in this state where you could do that with one solid job, but we don’t,” Murphy said.

Illinois’ minimum wage rate is currently the third highest in the country.    

Local business owners are also concerned that mandatory raises in the minimum wage could cause businesses to reduce operating hours or close.

Doug Knight, owner of Knight’s Action Park, said after the last minimum wage increase he closed the water park an hour early each day to help offset the raise.

“We had to cut our hours to save about 7,000 hours of labor,” Knight said. “If my expenses go up, I have to raise my prices. How high can I raise my prices and expect to hang on to my customers?”

Todd Maisch, vice president of government affairs for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber opposes the bill for a variety of reasons.

“The bill would eliminate the tip credit, which is the bulk of the compensation for individuals such as restaurant servers,” Maisch said. “This bill would be an absolute killer for the restaurant industry.”

A tip credit refers to an employer’s ability to set a lower minimum wage for their employees who receive tips. If the bill becomes law, servers would be paid a full hourly wage, instead of receiving tips as their primary income.

Despite the opposition, the bill passed the Senate Executive Committee on May 16 by a 9 to 5 vote.

Lightford said she is unsure how long it will take to get the bill passed.

“It could take a week or two or it could take eight or nine months…I don’t know,” Lightford said. “With the current economy, it is important to get everyone to the table and begin to have healthy discussions on how we can move low-wage workers out of poverty.”

Contact Neil Schneider at nschneider@illinoisitmes.

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