Minimum wage hike could impact many in Austin

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Robert Lee spends hours away from his wife and four daughters each day working at an Austin car lot shoveling the snow, cleaning the office, washing and selling cars – “everything except the financial side of it,” he said – and all of it for $8.25 per hour.

Lee, 36, said he is worries about supporting his family – a worry shared by many other Illinois workers.

In 2010, Lee, a member of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said he and his family lived in a shelter for seven months because his minimum wage job wasn’t enough to pay the rent.

After about six weeks of participating in the Put Illinois to Work program, Lee’s wages increased to $10 an hour enabling his family to move out of the shelter.

Bu the federally funded program ran out of money in 2011, and Lee is back making the state minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.

“It’s an everyday struggle to make ends meet,” Lee said.

Lee is among about 1.1 million workers who would be impacted by hike in the state’s minimum wage, according to the Illinois Department of Labor.

If Senate Bill 68 and House Bill 3718 become law, the state’s minimum wage would increase to $10.65 by July 1, 2016.

“I know an increase in the minimum wage would have an effect,” Lee said. “I was able to get my family out of the shelter on $10 an hour.”

Dollie Brewer, senior community organizer of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said she remembers making $10.35 per hour at her job in a Des Plaines book binder company.

“That was 38 years ago,” Brewer said. “How are you going to make it now when you couldn’t make it back then?”

Brewer and Lee joined several groups, including the Service Employees International Union, Action Now and Heartland Alliance at the Illinois State Capitol last week to rally in support of raising the minimum wage.

Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford (D-Westchester), the Senate bill’s chief sponsor, started her speech by chanting, “Raise Illinois. Raise Illinois …”

“We’re not asking for a handout,” Lightford said at the Feb. 26 rally. “We deserve it because we work hard for it. We’re the engine for Illinois.”

Rep. Arthur Turner (D-North Lawndale), the House bill’s chief sponsor, agreed.

“$8.25 is just not enough … it’s a joke,” Turner said. “Over 70 percent of the people in the state of Illinois support this bill.”

While supporters of the bill rallied for an increase, Mark Denzler, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association’s vice president and chief operating officer, said the legislation would lead to an “inflationary factor,” with other employees who make more than minimum wage wanting a raise as well.

Kim Clarke Maisch, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses of Illinois, said a hike would hurt the state’s economy.

“It’s not just the McDonald’s, it’s all the small businesses on Main Street that are going to get hit,” Maisch said. “The economic engine of our state are the small business owners.”

Maisch said it’s ironic Gov. Pat Quinn (D-Chicago) said he supports small business in his State of the State address, yet lawmakers keep considering legislation that adds employer mandates.

“You can’t have it both ways. This would be the absolute worst time for these mandates,” Maisch said. “We’re not going to go down without a fight. A lot can go down before a vote.”

Although Sen. Lightford urged rally supporters to help her spread the word about the legislation, Maisch said she doubts a vote will occur before the March 18 primary.

The Senate bill is scheduled for an Executive Committee hearing March 5, and the House bill has added 23 co-sponsors but has been sitting in committee since Oct. 22.

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