Illinois hikes minimum wage, but not enough

CHICAGO — The Illinois Legislature wasted no time heeding the national voters’ mandate, overwhelmingly passing a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage from $6.50 an hour to $7.50 effective next July. The bill, which Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he looks forward to signing, will make the Illinois minimum wage one of the nation’s highest.

The measure provides for the minimum to increase 25 cents a year until it hits $8.25 an hour in 2010.

According to figures released by Blagojevich’s office, the wage increase will boost the average annual income for nearly 650,000 full-time minimum wage workers and their children from $13,520 to $15,600 next year. By 2010, the yearly pay for a full-time minimum wage earner will be $17,160. The federal government defined the poverty level as $15,577 for a family of three in 2005.

For many low-income workers, a job near minimum wage is their only option. The federal minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour and has not moved since 1997. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum is at its lowest level since 1955.

The new Democratic majority in Congress plans to push the minimum wage nationwide to $7.25 an hour. Montana, Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nevada and Ohio voters approved minimum wage increases on Nov. 7. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia will have 2007 minimum wages above the federal level.

Still, many low-income workers say the wage increase is not enough and does not provide a way out of poverty, especially since prices for necessities such as housing and transportation have also risen.

“People should at least make $10 an hour — living in Chicago is too high, especially for people who have kids and pay bills,” said Tony Jones as he stopped to talk at the North Riverside Park Mall, just outside of Chicago. “It’s not enough.”

Wardell Porter, 48, an African American self-employed painter who was also shopping at the mall, said, “I know a lot of people who are going to be affected by this, but people still have to struggle. People still have to pay bills, the babysitters, you have to freeze in the winter because you can’t pay the heat, and starve in the summer in order to stay cool.”

Porter noted that jobs like selling newspapers, collecting glass bottles or shinning shoes used to be things he did as a youth. Now he sees grown men having to do this, just to get by. “There ain’t no jobs,” he said. “And you wonder why folks do wrong.”

Jason Paul, 20, an African American, is a psychology major at Malcolm X College in Chicago and works as a sales representative for Bally’s Fitness at the mall. He commented, “The amount of people in poverty is messed up, and something can be done about this.” He added, “We need someone to take a stand.”

The Illinois bill includes a provision that will allow employers to pay newly hired workers during their first three months on the job and teens under 18 a wage 50 cents an hour less than the minimum.

Nevertheless Latoya Johnson, 17, who works at McDonald’s, welcomed the wage increase. “I think the minimum wage should go up,” she said. “I work too hard to make only $6.50 an hour. I’m going to see a big difference in my paychecks.”

Johnson’s manager Giovanna Garzon, 19, agreed the raise is good. “We deserve it, but when they increase the wages, then they will increase the products; there are good things and bad,” she said. Garzon said unequal pay and paying workers 50 cents less if they are under the age of 18 is unfair. “Less pay is bad — it should be equal because they are still going to have to work just as hard,” she said.

Beth Spencer, communications director of the Illinois AFL-CIO, called raising the minimum wage “so important” given the rising cost of living. “Working and living on a minimum wage does not cut it,” she said.

Nationwide a minimum wage hike would affect 1.9 million hourly workers who make minimum wage and raise wages for an estimated 6.5 million workers, or 4 percent of the work force — janitors, waitstaff, security guards, cashiers and store clerks — according to the Economic Policy Institute. One-quarter of hourly workers making minimum wage are teenagers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Low wages coupled with increased housing costs have put more people at risk of being homeless. For example, 28 percent of homeless adults in Louisville, Ky., shelters have jobs but can’t afford housing, according to the Louisville Coalition for the Homeless.

Although Illinois is on the map in the fight to raise the minimum wage, lawmakers here also moved to give themselves and other top state officials a hefty 15.6 percent pay raise.

plozano @