SPRINGFIELD — Some Democratic lawmakers are trying to nearly double Illinois' statewide minimum wage to $15 per hour over several years, aiming to give raises to more than a million workers and an early victory to new Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
The state minimum wage has been $8.25 since 2010 despite Democrats' repeated efforts to raise it. It's $12 in Chicago and $11 in Cook County, with both set to go up by $1 per hour this summer. In 2017, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill that would have raised it statewide to $15 over five years.
Now, with Democrats in control of the governor's mansion and both the Illinois House and Senate, they are charging ahead on an issue that's popular with many of their supporters. But Pritzker could risk alienating business interests and Republican lawmakers in his first big legislative effort, shortly after sounding bipartisan tones when he was sworn in last month.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat who has tried to raise the minimum wage before, said she hopes to introduce her new proposal as early as Tuesday. That timetable could give Pritzker a chance to sign a minimum wage increase into law before delivering his first budget proposal to lawmakers on Feb. 20, she said.
"We're trying to make sure that he's able to do so," she said.
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Her goal is to get the state's minimum wage to $15, more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and equal to the level it will reach in California in 2022 and in Massachusetts the following year. As of Monday, specifics were still being worked out, and debate among lawmakers could further change any proposal. Up for discussion is how many years it should take to boost the wage to $15, whether employers should continue being allowed to pay some teenage workers less and how to structure tax credits to help small businesses offset rising payroll costs.
"Working families across Illinois deserve a raise," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement. "After years of discussion, debate and delay, Gov. Pritzker is looking forward to joining labor, business and other stakeholders in supporting a bill that will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour."
The ongoing talks have included groups representing both organized labor, which strongly backed Pritzker in the November election, and business groups, which tend to be more aligned with Republicans. The AFL-CIO and other labor organizations have been pushing for a $15 minimum wage in Illinois and nationally for several years, arguing that it would raise millions of workers out of poverty.
"We'd like to have some labor-management agreement on this bill," said Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, who served on the governor's transition team.
The Illinois Restaurant Association, which represents more than 9,000 eateries across the state, also is taking part in talks. Because Democrats have big majorities in the legislature and a governor who clearly wants a minimum wage hike, business groups might not get far if they just oppose an increase.
"We always like to be at the table instead of on the menu," Sam Toia, president of the association, said.
Toia said his group believes there should be a reasonable raise in the minimum wage, adding that $15 seems reasonable if the increase is gradual enough. He said he wants to preserve the current way tips are counted toward the minimum wage for servers and certain other employees.
Other business groups are asking for bigger changes. Retail leaders want Illinois to take into account the fact that it costs more to live in the Chicago area than it does Downstate. For example, the rate could be $15 in Chicago and Cook County, $13 in the collar counties and $11 in the rest of the state, Illinois Retail Merchants Association President and CEO Rob Karr said.
It's not clear, though, that the idea is being seriously considered.
"There is a difference between being heard and being listened to," Karr said.
Karr said state lawmakers should consider that Chicago and Cook County have had a head start on raising wages. The city's $12 an hour wage is set to increase to $13 on July 1, the last in a series of increases. The Cook County minimum wage will go from $11 to $12 on July 1 and to $13 after that. A bill that would require all Illinois employers to hit $15 an hour on the same date would have a disproportionate impact on business owners in the rest of the state, he said.
"No one's ever seen these types of increases," he said.
Chicago-area businesses have had to adjust, though. Berwyn-based Buona Beef, which has 24 locations in Chicago and the suburbs, has raised its menu prices in recent years to account for higher wages, said Joe Buonavolanto, co-owner of the family business launched in 1981.
Buona Beef already charges 3 percent to 5 percent more for menu items at its three Chicago locations than in the suburbs due to the city's higher minimum wage, he said. Only about a fourth of the chain's 1,300 employees are currently paid minimum wage, Buonavolanto said, setting it apart from some larger fast-food competitors.
"We're always paying a little more," he said. "Most of our team has been with us for years. We don't have the type of turnover that most other restaurants have."
The growing chain is looking to add four or five Chicago-area locations annually over the next several years, Buonavolanto said. A higher minimum wage wouldn't derail those plans, but it would impact profitability, he said.
Buonavolanto said he is not against raising the state's minimum wage, but in the end, something has to give to preserve margins. Most likely, that means customers can expect to pay more for their Italian beef sandwiches.
"We have to be competitive," he said. "We have to be able to provide quality food. We would never cut back there."
Illinois lawmakers will be back at the Capitol today, and the Senate could have hearings on the issue this week. Issues in Springfield don't always move fast, but Democratic lawmakers trying to please a new governor and score early points with their supporters might see the minimum wage as a good early move. The idea also could be a first early test of how Pritzker will work with both Democrats and Republicans.
Republican state Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego is the House GOP's point person on the minimum wage, and he says he's not been involved in talks.
He questioned the wisdom of trying to address such a complicated issue in the first few weeks of the new legislative session.
"That may make great political sense, but I don't know if it makes much policy sense," he said.