by Lee V. Gaines
Brent Weiss is convinced that having to pay his workers more will have an impact on his outdoor and sporting goods business, he’s just not sure how much his bottom line will be tapped.
The full-time workers at his Uncle Dan’s stores, which include four locations in the Chicago area, including one on Church Street in Evanston, already make close to $13 an hour. He said his lowest-paid employees currently earn about $10 an hour already “because we need people to come with knowledge and a higher skill.”
Starting July 1, 2017, the minimum wage in Cook County will jump to $10 per hour, a hike of about 21 percent over the current $8.25 rate. It will be the first bump in a series of incremental increases the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved last week. Commissioners voted to up the county’s minimum wage to $13 by July 2020, which will align the county’s minimum wage with the city of Chicago’s. The city began its first phase of wage increases a year ago.
The minimum wage increase “will affect businesses â€“ it has to,” said Weiss, who explained that he already pays higher than minimum wage. He said with the rate increased, he could end up paying workers as much as $15 per hour to employ the talent and experience he seeks.
Like many Evanston business owners, and even the city â€“ which employs part-time workers and youth over the summer at minimum wage, Weiss said he’ll be waiting to see the financial fallout.
“I’m kind of down the middle. They already approved it. I have to wait and see what’s going to happen,” he said.
Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, the lead sponsor of the wage increase proposal, said the mandatory pay hike is an issue of fairness for the county’s workers.
Passing the increase “was an important thing to do because I have three communities that border the city of Chicago â€“ Lincolnwood, Skokie and Evanston â€“ and it just struck me that people working in similar businesses were making $10.50 an hour on the Chicago side and making $8.25 an hour on the Cook County side and it seemed painfully unfair.”
In July 2018, minium wage in the county goes up to $11 per hour and increases $1 each year to 2020, when it will hit $13.
Suffredin said he anticipates that over 200,000 workers will benefit from the measure commissioners approved and the extra cash in their pockets “will create a mini economic stimulus” in the county.
The city’s youth summer employment program might also be affected by the minimum wage jump, according to Evanston City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.
He said the city council has not taken a formal position on the rate increase, and all full-time employees already make above the new minimum. However, he said, the city employs about 400 youths part-time during the summer months at minimum wage in a variety of positions primarily related to parks, recreation and community service programs. The city’s proposed 2017 budget includes an additional $100,000 in spending on the program with the goal of bringing the number of youths employed up to 1,000.
But Bobkiewicz said it’s unclear, at this point, how having to pay them more could affect the program.
“We will have to study law to understand impact on our part-time employee wages,” the city manager said.
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce opposed the wage hike, Suffredin said. But the commissioner explained that he has yet to hear pushback from individual business owners in his district.
Jim Pepa, president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, said his organization has not taken an official position on the wage increase. In light of its passage, he said the chamber is considering surveying its membership to find out what the reaction is.
“It might not be an immediate issue heading into 2017, but I expect as increases continue to go into place, it might become a bigger issue for some folks,” Pepa said.
Some of the area’s larger retailers and employers remained mum on the minimum wage issue.
For example, a spokesperson for Trader Joe’s, which has an Evanston location, said the company had no comment when asked how the wage hike would affect their business in the county.
Winnetka-based Open Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for housing, economic and social justice issues, released a statement applauding the mandatory wage increase.
“Many of the people living in the northern suburban communities we serve cannot afford to pay the rent. Many who work here can’t afford transportation costs. Mandating an increase in the minimum wage that brings us closer to a living wage is the least we can do to help our neighbors get by,” the statement read.