The Cook County minimum wages increases go into effect on July 1. However, municipalities can elect to opt out and follow state guidelines instead.

What are we willing to pay to support out values?  If we believe in fair wages, are we willing to intentionally pay more in Oak Park for our purchases? 

Locally-mandated wage law is tricky.  Most agree with people’s right to adequate pay.  But what does “adequate” mean?  Our statewide $8.25 hourly minimum wage is inadequate to live on, hence the Cook County Board’s ordinance to raise it to $10 an hour on July 1, followed by annual increases to $13 by 2020.

Typically, such matters are left to state government, which creates a more level playing field for businesses.  Although some cities, including Chicago, enact their own laws, suburbs typically look to the state.   Since the Cook County ordinance allows for municipalities to opt out in favor of existing state laws, many surrounding communities, including River Forest and Elmwood Park, have taken that step or are considering it.  It is Oak Park’s turn to intentionally back the higher wage ordinance or choose to join the long list of neighboring communities opting out of the higher Cook County rate.

Legislating wage increases implicitly assumes one of three things.  Perhaps there is excess profit in the business that an owner should rightfully share with laborers.  Or, the business is inefficient.  Through better management, higher wages can be offset by savings elsewhere.  The third scenario boasts no excess profits or inefficiencies and the owner must pass the higher costs on to the consumer through higher prices.

We have few large companies here that might fall into the first two groups.  Our local economy comprises small, independent businesses and locally-owned franchises.  Most owners scrape by on thin margins in a competitive environment.  Legislating higher taxes and now higher wages increases the cost of business.  What is an adequate wage relative to the price people will pay for services rendered? 

If consumers will pay more to offset increased costs, then we can manage a higher minimum wage.  Let’s promote it and be proud of it.  However, if price-conscious consumers choose cheaper coffee, restaurants, or services in a neighboring town, then we have to ask ourselves whether we can afford to stand on principle.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...