King presses for minimum wage increase at Workforce Committee hearing

Ald. Sophia King speaks about her proposed ordinance to raise Chicago’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers in 2021 at today’s press conference in City Hall. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Ald. Sophia King (4th) argued in favor of her ordinance to raise the city minimum wage to $15 an hour on July 1, 2021, calling the move “necessary and right” as the Committee on Workforce Development heard testimony on the matter.

The committee did not vote on whether to advance the ordinance on Tuesday. King said that the ordinance, which has 34 co-sponsors, may come to a vote at the Oct. 16 City Council meeting.

Chairwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said she did not know when the committee would meet to vote on the ordinance. Mayor Lori Lightfoot endorsed the minimum wage increase last month in her State of the City address.

King’s ordinance, which is being supported by the Raise Chicago coalition of labor unions and progressive political organizations, would raise the city’s minimum wage to $14 an hour on July 1, 2020. After 2021, the minimum wage would increase each July 1 by the amount of increase in the Consumer Price Index.

King said that increasing the minimum wage to $15 for all workers, including youth and those earning tips, would correct a racist wrong, as service workers of color traditionally have been paid substandard wages.

Minimum wage for tipped Chicago workers is currently $6.40 an hour; employers must pay tipped workers enough to total $13 an hour if tips fail to push the employee’s pay to that level.

The creation of a standardized minimum wage for all Chicago workers became the biggest point of contention in the hearing.

“Tipped wages are rooted in racism,” King said. “Not only racism but sexism, wage theft — all types of negative and adverse effects. Having a dependable wage also means also that you’ll have dependable employees.”

When Southwest Side Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) questioned why patrons would continue tipping when all service workers make $15 an hour, King was quick to respond.

“Because you have one fair wage doesn’t mean that you still can’t have tipped employees,” she said. “Tipped is meant to be extra. It’s not meant to be what you count on.” King said the Chicago restaurant industry was in good financial condition but was “not passing along to its employees.”

Washington, D.C., residents voted to phase out a minimum wage exemption for tipped workers by referendum in 2018, but the Council of the District of Columbia overturned them last October; opponents to King’s ordinance said service workers in the capitol came out against the move, thinking they would lose money without tips.

King argued that the D.C. council members’ minds had been changed by campaign contributions. In California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Washington state and Oregon, she said, “one fair wage is working really, really well.”

King said that “a couple of dollars is not going to break anyone” and argued that, when Chicago increased its minimum wage to $13 an hour on July 1, “nobody went belly up in the restaurant industry.”

Sam Toia from the Illinois Restaurant Association spoke in opposition to King’s ordinance, noting that the Illinois minimum wage for non-tipped workers will increase to $15 an hour in 2025, thanks to state legislative action earlier this year, and that restaurants, which he said operate with a 3% to 5% profit margin, could not bear the increased payroll sooner.

Without naming her, Toia also rebuffed King’s social justice rhetoric, noting that restaurant industry workers make, between wages and tips, at least the minimum wage by law. He also said restaurants are taking efforts to protect their workers against harassment on the job.

Mike Jacobson, Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, also expressed opposition to the ordinance, reiterating Toia’s arguments about profit margins, tipped workers’ wages and the path to the middle class the hospitality industry provides.

Ali Baker, a 17-year tipped restaurant worker affiliated with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago, noted that 70% of tipped workers are women.

“I’ve been sexually harassed so much that I feel like it’s a part of the job description,” she said. “Customers have said and done things like offering me hotel room keys instead of a tip, propositioning me for sexual favors, touching my body, making lewd comments about my body and much more. When you rely on tips, you have to put up with this kind of behavior, or you do not get paid.”

Other ordinance supporters noted that tipped workers are afraid of employer retaliation should they report getting paid below the minimum wage.

At a press conference before the committee meeting, King said she had staked the ordinance on bringing Chicagoans the “reasonable and respectable wages” they deserve.

“As the cost of living increases, wages have stayed relatively stagnant, resulting in a pinch felt by more and more families each and every day,” she said. “Chicago has been and will continue to be a beacon of progressive policies that advance the rights of workers and their families.”

King could not give an estimate about how much the increase would cost, though she pressed to put “put out budget where our priorities are, and definitely our priorities should be with the working community of people … who make up the City of Chicago.”

Kenwood resident LeChrisha Pearson, who works as a certified nursing assistant at Mount Sinai Medical Center, 1500 S. Fairfield Ave., said she only makes $13.53 an hour — just $2 more than she made when she started in 2011. She said she is on Medicaid, as she cannot afford to buy into her employer’s health insurance.

“It’s hard for me to say to my son, ‘I can’t afford for you to play sports.” It’s especially hard when I know not playing sports has a chance of hurting him getting into college,” she said.

The $13 minimum wage, achieved by Chicago workers organizing for more pay, she said, is a good start but not enough. “The City Council needs to do their part and raise the minimum wage right now. Fifteen cannot wait,” she said. “Pass the Chicago Raise ordinance, and don’t leave any workers out.”