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Oak Lawn opts out of Cook County minimum wage, sick time laws

Friday, May 12, 2017
Daily Southtown
by Zak Koeske

Oak Lawn recently joined the growing ranks of Cook County suburbs that have opted out of the county's minimum wage and paid sick leave laws.

The village board voted Tuesday unanimously and without discussion to opt out of the laws, which would incrementally raise the minimum wage to $13 by 2020 and allow employees to accrue up to five days of paid sick time each year.

"I know our small businesses appreciate that very much," said Mayor Sandra Bury, whose community currently is bound by the state minimum wage of $8.25.

The minimum wage and paid sick leave laws were passed by the Cook County Board in October and take effect July 1, but any municipality, regardless of whether it has home-rule authority, can opt out at any time, Cook County spokesman Frank Shuftan said.

While residents in other communities around the county have publicly voiced their opposition to proposed opt outs of the minimum wage ordinance, no such dissent materialized in Oak Lawn at the recent meeting.

The only public comment came from a man who was critical of the law and urged the board to opt out of it, saying that government should refrain from meddling in the affairs of private businesses.

Both Bury and Adam Woodworth, president of the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce, said their support for opting out of the ordinance stemmed more from its implementation than its intent.

"Our argument is not that it isn't time for the minimum wage to go up, it's that it needs to be all across the board," said Woodworth, whose chamber board unanimously opposed the county's minimum wage hike. "That way it keeps all of us on a level playing field, no matter where we live, no matter what municipality we're in, no matter what county we're in."

Because Cook County municipalities can opt out of the minimum wage law, and many already have, any town that does not puts itself and its businesses at a distinct disadvantage, they said.

Woodworth said the situation had played out exactly as he expected it would — with communities that border other counties not subject to the minimum wage increase opting out first, which in turn created a domino-like effect that has now reached more interior Cook County towns.

"Collar communities kind of on the edge of Cook County started opting out because they were by other counties, which would cause a competitive disadvantage for their businesses," he said. "They opted out and it slowly just started coming back into the city.

"When you see the map of (towns that have opted out), it really almost put Oak Lawn kind of on an island," he continued. "And then you have to ask, what does that mean for small business in Oak Lawn, and businesses looking to come to the area?"

At least 10 other Southland communities have opted out of the county's minimum wage increase as of early May, according to a list compiled by the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce. Woodworth said that a number of other south suburban municipalities are mulling the decision to opt out or have upcoming votes on the issue already scheduled.

Supporters of a minimum wage hike argue that it is becoming increasingly difficult for low-wage workers to make ends meet as the cost of living rises. More than 40 percent of Illinoisans earn less than $15 an hour, and nearly 30 percent earn less than $12, according to Oxfam.

The National Employment Law Project, an advocacy organization for low-wage workers that advocates for a $15 minimum wage in Illinois, estimates that by 2022 a single worker in Chicago with no children will need to earn $17.65 just to afford the basics.

Paul Sonn, legal counsel for NELP, said that while it's common for businesses to oppose minimum wage increases, research on the topic has found no evidence of slowed job growth or business relocations as a result of minimum wage hikes.

"Many businesses lobby against it, but the experience is when (the minimum wage) does go up, they're able to adjust, and you don't see an effect on business expansion or job growth," he said.

That's because the jobs most affected by minimum wage increases are typically service jobs like restaurant, retail, home health care and child care that serve a local clientele and cannot easily be outsourced or relocated, he said.

"You can't clean an office building remotely from some other place to avoid paying the minimum wage," Sonn said.

While the Oak Lawn Chamber does not support the optional countywide minimum wage increase because of the patchwork way it is being implemented, Woodworth said he believes it's time for the minimum wage to increase statewide, and he credits the issue with prompting Oak Lawn business owners to consider what more they can offer employees.

"I definitely think it's time for the minimum wage to go up," he said. "I'm not smart enough to tell you what that number should be, but I do think it' time for the minimum wage to increase."

The current state minimum wage is $8.25, but bills in the Illinois House and Senate seek to increase that amount to $15 and $11, respectively. Neither bill has yet come up for a vote.

Twitter @ZakKoeske

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