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Northbrook opts out of county minimum-wage law

Thursday, May 25, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Irv Leavitt,

The Northbrook Village Board voted Tuesday night to opt out of a Cook County ordinance that would have raised the minimum wage, after hearing from passionate contingents of both supporters and detractors of the law.

The board voted 6-1 to exclude Northbrook employers from the minimum wage provision, and 5-2 to let them out of another county provision that would have guaranteed paid sick leave for most employees.

For towns not opting out, the late-2016 county ordinance increases the minimum wage from $8.25 per hour to $10 on July 1, adding another $1 per hour each summer until 2020, when the rate rises to $13 an hour. Every July after that, the minimum wage will rise with inflation, not to exceed 2.5 percent in any year. The county "earned sick leave" bill guarantees, in essence, an hour of sick leave for every 40 hours of work.

But many municipalities already have opted out of the law, towns that include Arlington Heights, Barrington, Bartlett, Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove Village, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Streamwood and Wheeling, with Glenview, Morton Grove and Des Plaines town councils about to make the call.

Northbrook Trustee Muriel Collison said she decided to vote against the minimum wage increase after seeing how many surrounding communities in northern Cook County already have opted out. She said that, as of 2020, minimum pay would be almost $5 an hour less than in Northbrook, if the law prevailed in her town and the state minimum wage stayed the same.

That would make it difficult for businesses in the village to compete with towns for miles around, she said. The result, according to Collison, would be Northbrook becoming "not really an island I would want to visit as a business person."

Trustee Kathryn Ciesla agreed.

"I'm afraid that Northbrook would be a place where business won't come," she said.

Trustee A.C. Buehler said that for years, Northbrook has tried to boost downtown development, "and I see no way that the county ordinance gets us there."

Only Trustee Jason Han backed the wage hike, saying that not doing so would be taking away rights of local workers that had already been granted by the legislation.

He said he was familiar with the plight of single parents traveling hours per day to work in the suburbs.

"We have an epidemic of single moms working not one full-time job, but two full-time jobs," said Han, who like Collison, was attending his first meeting as a trustee. "We do pay a cost … when they can't take time off to take care of their kids. … Those costs include violence.

"Many of them are evicted from their homes because they just can't survive," he continued. "I just can't look at my creator in the eye and know that I took away those rights."

Only Han and Collison backed keeping the paid sick leave provision. After Trustee Bob Israel referred to the paperwork around it as "unbelievably difficult to deal with," Collison remarked that at her law firm, faced with a similar Chicago law, "we had to create, and are working on, a new spreadsheet. It took about 10 minutes."

The votes were hard to swallow for those who had organized the movement to keep the ordinances intact in Northbrook.

"I am heartbroken," said Tracy Katz Muhl, a Northbrook resident and District 28 School Board member. "I am heartbroken for the thousands and thousands of workers who won't get the opportunity for a decent wage."

But it was good news for some business people, like Gregg Panek of Northbrook's Panek Precision automotive parts plant.

"We're competing with these third-world countries at very low cost, and we do compete, and we can't afford to have these minimum wages start at $10." His son Brian predicted the first year under the new provisions would have cost the firm $500,000.

Several local businesspeople had complained about what might happen if the laws went through.

Chris Laughlin of Christopher Laughlin School of Music said that if his music instructors took all the sick time they would have coming under the new code, he would lose 2.5 percent of his lessons because there would be no way to ever reschedule them. He said that would translate to a 12.5 percent loss of profit, from which he derives his own income.

"I don't mean to whine (but) for my income to take that much of a hit is not something I could easily overcome," he said.

Laughlin said he spoke because he wanted to dispute an earlier speaker, Northbrook resident Bruce Frankel.

"They're all millionaires, half of them," Frankel had said of the pro-opt-out speakers. "These guys are not afraid of losing their jobs. They just want to make more and more and more money off the backs of the low-wage workers."

Jennifer Lawrence, owner of the downtown Northbrook's Juniper women's store, also disagreed with Frankel, saying she wasn't a millionaire, and her store didn't earn that much in a year.

"We pay at minimum wage or over, but not as (much) over as the proposal, for our high school students," she said. She added that those students likely would lose their jobs folding and steaming garments, as those were tasks she was "not willing to spend $15 for."

Some trustees cited her comments in their decision. But another speaker, resident Dick Murphy, commented that the law did not apply to workers younger than 18, so few high school-age employees would be affected.

He also remarked on a comment made by the Northbrook Industrial and Commercial Development Commission in a letter to trustees that the new codes would be "an administrative burden" to businesses.

"I think of the people who are making (about) $16,500 a year," Murphy said. "They've got a lot of burdens that I think make the administrative burdens pale in comparison."

Cook County Clerk David Orr told trustees that in nonbinding referendums, 70 percent or more of Northbrook voters had supported laws like the county measures.

"As politicians, you know — you get 55 percent, it's a landslide," he said.

He added that the county code may be the village's last chance for years to raise minimum wages.

"The state is not going to raise the minimum wage. It's just not going to happen," he said. "The key way that most businesses are successful is that they value their employees. You want the good people to stay, and the less good, to leave."

Ben Head, political director for Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-9th, said, "In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the minimum wage of $1.60 was a poverty wage. In today's dollars, that would be $11.40."

He said that as wages rise, those earning them would return that money to the economy.

Two owners of senior home care businesses maintained they couldn't afford the new codes, which drew scorn from pro-wage-hike Northbrook activist Catherine Caporusso.

"I certainly would much prefer to hire a company that provided sick leave (for senior-care employees) than to hire a person who has to choose between going to work sick or losing her job," she said. "That is not the kind of community that I thought that I lived in."

Several businesspeople remarked that the ordinance didn't make any economic difference to them, but they opposed it anyway.

"I object to the county setting the rules for this," said Richard Rivkin of Northbrook's Saf-T-Gard. "I think the marketplace is a much better place to set the rules."

Michael Nortman, who built and sold the commercial portion of the Northshore 770 development, said it was important the village remain competitive.

"When companies look to locate in places, they have boxes they check off, (and) costs have everything to do with it," Nortman said. "These other communities that have opted out are not against raising the minimum wage. What they are against is that it is not a level playing field."

Twitter @IrvLeavitt

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