Figuring out Oak Park's living wage ordinance

Forum tonight to discuss livable pay for village workers

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Oak Parkers got the ball rolling in November, when 60 percent of voters passed a referendum, urging the village to create a living wage ordinance.

Now the nitty-gritty work has begun, with a volunteer citizen commission tasked with figuring out what exactly a living wage might look like in Oak Park and whether it's feasible.

Voters approved the referendum in November's election. The question asked: "Shall the Village of Oak Park enact a 'Living Wage' ordinance stipulating that: a) Village employees, b) employees of contractors or subcontractors performing work for the Village, and c) employees of businesses that receive a significant financial subsidy from the Village, receive a living wage indexed to inflation that would include health benefits and paid time off?"

The idea is to require village hall and its contractors to pay employees a "livable wage." Tom Broderick, 57, co-chair of the Greater Oak Park Democratic Socialists of America, helped fight to get the referendum on the ballot, a process that had started four years ago. Since then, other groups have joined in, such as the Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice.

After the referendum passed, economist and Oak Park resident Ron Baiman crafted a sample ordinance for Oak Park, using a template from the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City. Baiman also helped to craft a living wage ordinance for the city of Chicago, according to Broderick.

The group couldn't find a way to cover every taxing body in the village, so it decided to start with village hall. If the effort succeeds there, the hope is that it could be applied to other entities such as the library, school districts and park district, Broderick said.

"Certainly the people involved would all like it applied to other governing districts as well," said William Barclay, an Oak Park resident, member of the Coalition for Truth and Justice and a professor for the University of Illinois-Chicago business school.

In February, the village board asked the Oak Park Community Relations Commission to explore the ins and outs of creating a living wage ordinance here.

John Murtagh, chair of the commission, has been helping lead an exploration of the issues. He estimates that 88 communities in the country have living wage ordinances (a number that Barclay disputes, saying it's more than 100).

A living wage requires the government - along with contractors, subcontractors and agencies that receive village dollars - to pay an amount that's enough to cover housing, food, clothing, medical care and any other necessities, according to Murtagh. What exactly that amount might be is unclear.

The report from Baiman originally said $14.11 an hour, which was later increased to $14.84. Broderick wants a living wage to be adjusted to the cost of living each year.

"The point behind the living wage is to help people, and continue to help them," he said.

But Murtagh says the commission has found that living wages vary greatly across the country, and he wants to make sure that whatever number is reached has sound evidence and research behind it.

"There is no formula, there is no common sense, there is no discussion, and to me I could never sign off on that," Murtagh said of the $14.84 number.

Barclay says it's a question of what's fair, and there's no golden figure that exists.

"There is no magic number out there," he said. "The question is: What is a reasonable number in terms of dealing with some of the problems of inequality? I personally think it should be higher, but I'm comfortable with that number."

All employees at village hall currently earn a living wage, but the commission must figure out the implications of contractors and entities that receive village funding being required to pay a living wage, Murtagh said.

The Community Relations Commission is hosting a discussion tonight, Aug. 19, at 7:15 p.m. at village hall, 123 Madison, on the living wage ordinance. Expert speakers, including Barclay, will speak for five minutes on the topic, and residents will get three minutes.

The commission will prepare a final report to present to the village board sometime later this year.


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