The next step

Rob Jenkins, manager of a small record store on the West Side, says mom-and-pop stores like his will have a hard time if a broader living wage ordinance were enacted. (Photo by Audrey Cho)

Rob Jenkins, manager of a small record store on the West Side, says mom-and-pop stores like his will have a hard time if a broader living wage ordinance were enacted. (Photo by Audrey Cho)

It was 11 on a warm September evening, and Wayne Hillier was one hour away from the end of his shift. He had spent the last seven hours on his feet, standing guard in Home Depot’s garden section on North Avenue. As usual, his right leg was swollen. “My leg swells up every time,” he said, shifting from his right foot to the left. A customer approached the door, and Hillier reached out for his bag of purchases, checking the contents against the receipt. A quick glance, and he sent the customer on his way.

At 42, Hillier’s had his share of health problems. He’s gone through three heart surgeries and takes medication for heart and thyroid conditions. He also takes a water pill to help the swelling in his lower right calf. He was earning $8.35 an hour, plus benefits, working for U.S. Security Associates, which has a contract with Home Depot. He put in 37 hours each week and earned a paycheck of $617.90, before taxes, twice a month. After weekly public transportation costs, rent and food, Hillier said he was left with about $140 each month to cover the costs of his medical bills, which at times added up to nearly $200. The saving grace was that he had to pay only about $60 a month for rent since he still lived with his parents. “For me, it’s just barely enough,” said Hillier, who found a janitorial job in Skokie with better benefits in October. “If I didn’t live with my parents, I don’t know what I’d do.”

When the Chicago City Council was considering a living wage “big box” ordinance this summer, supporters of the legislation had people like Hillier in mind: thousands of blue-collar workers in the city struggling to make ends meet.

The scope of the ordinance, however, was narrow by design. It mandated stores with more than 90,000 square feet and sales totaling at least $1 billion to pay their workers $9.25 an hour, plus benefits, with the rate increasing to $10 an hour by 2010. But it would have left out a large number of workers who were also in need of living wages—including Hillier, if he still worked in the city.

The Chicago Reporter analyzed employment and wage statistics from the Illinois Department of Employment Security for 2004, the latest year for which data were available, and found that, in Cook County, there were about 175,000 such workers in 44 occupations making less than $9.25 an hour.

The figure is a stark contrast to the number of workers who would have benefited from the big-box ordinance. In February, the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago estimated that the ordinance would cover 35 stores and their 16,250 employees, who were making $10 an hour.

For 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller, the ordinance was too “arbitrary” and ill-fated for structural change. “How many minimum wage earners work at fast food stores? In mid- and small-size wealthy national chains? In other unprotected industries?” asked Shiller in a speech before the City Council. “Many, many more [workers], I believe, than those working in stores that have more than 90,000 square feet of retail.”

In the end, Shiller was among the 18 aldermen who voted to sustain Mayor Richard M. Daley’s veto.

Aldermen and union officials who supported the big-box ordinance vow that they’ll keep fighting for living wages, but there is no consensus on what path such reform should take.

49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, the primary sponsor of the big-box ordinance, says he will wait until after February’s municipal elections to propose revised legislation. Meanwhile, 6th Ward Alderman Freddrenna Lyle says she and her allies are going back to the drawing board. “In terms of the living wage ordinance, those who were in favor are going to continue working on the issue,” she said. “What it’s going to transform into—I can’t tell you right now.”

What’s important, Lyle added, is to keep pushing the state and federal governments to raise minimum wages. “It’s a multi-faceted approach that has to be done,” she said. “Continually pressing the federal government to increase the minimum wage and press the state as well. And, if the feds are going to continually duck it, then push the state.”

50th Ward Alderman Bernard Stone was initially behind the big-box ordinance but, in the last hour of the City Council’s discussions, changed his mind and voted against it.

Instead, Stone pushed to build legislation off of an existing ordinance that requires all city contractors to pay their workers $8.50 an hour. “We have a living wage ordinance on the books. We could expand it,” he said.

Others are now exploring a similar approach, such as an idea to require most businesses under Tax Increment Financing districts to pay their workers a living wage.

Whatever path legislators ultimately take, some are cautioning against the unintended consequences.

Joseph Persky, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of a 2002 study on self-sufficiency, points out that a broader living wage ordinance could place hardships on small mom-and-pop businesses across the city.

“That’s the trouble with our job,” 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colon said. “We stroke a pen to make something happen, but how does that impact the little guy? And that’s always my concern. The big guys can take care of themselves, but the little guys are the folks –¦ who would have a difficult time.”

Rob Jenkins is all for the community. As manager of Partee’s Records, a small record store in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood, Jenkins is known for giving away his CDs to children who bring in their report cards with more than one “A” and often buys lunch for those who can’t afford a meal. “I’m always looking out for the community, you know. Just trying to give back,” Jenkins says.

When Wal-Mart moved into the neighborhood, Jenkins didn’t complain as one of the “little guys” and lowered his CD prices in order to compete with the retail giant. He saw that Wal-Mart was helping Austin in the form of needed jobs. As long as it is committed to “look out for the community,” Jenkins figures he can deal with the increased competition.

Jenkins’ heart may beat for Austin, but his mind is always on the business. Partee’s Records has been around since the ’70s, but Jenkins knows that his store’s stature pales in comparison to Wal-Mart’s size and influence. A broader living wage ordinance would have a greater impact on his store. “The chain stores—they can afford to do that. But we mom-and-pop stores—we’re barely making it.”

But Alderman Stone doesn’t buy that argument. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “If you really believe in what you say and want to help the working poor, then you should practice what you preach.”

Alderman Moore may have a happy medium to appease both the Stones and the Jenkinses on this issue. He says he’s devising a citywide ordinance that would exempt stores like Partee’s Records from an increased minimum wage. He cited ordinances enacted in Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco as models that won’t drive the “little guy” out. In Santa Fe, for example, businesses with less than 25 employees are exempt from having to pay the living wage of $9.50 an hour.

Michael Reich, who has been studying the economic impact of both ordinances, said the two cities have not faced any negative impact on their businesses. “I haven’t seen any unintended consequences yet,” said Reich, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

At one point, Moore was promising to introduce legislation that would exempt businesses with less than 1,000 employees, but he says he was only trying to keep the momentum behind the living wage issue. “We simply wanted to let people know this issue is not going away,” he said.

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