Chicago and our country are facing uncertain times. Take, for instance, the labor market and gun violence: long Covid and childcare problems have made some workers drop out, while legal firearm purchases have percolated out onto the streets and factored into the nationwide uptick in gun violence. With these and other issues beyond easy control, however, any source of increased stability is a welcome measure. That’s exactly why Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago’s City Council should initiate another phased-in minimum wage increase ending by 2025 or so at somewhere around $18 or $19 an hour.
Mayor Lightfoot recently fulfilled her campaign promise to lift minimum wage to $15 an hour, the long-time aspirational goal of the SEIU-affiliated Fight for Fifteen movement. While very welcome and still a cut above many other places, that level of earnings is nevertheless not what it was even a decade ago, and it falls noticeably below a living wage.
Even apart from this basic issue of fairness, though, a minimum wage increase pointedly parallels other efforts to positively change whatever we can locally in order to combat broader pandemic-time challenges.
Perhaps most noteworthy is the recent extension of a hotel-based housing contract in order to better shepherd our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness into more stable housing situations: alongside the 2022 budget’s much-needed increase in mental health resources, this move helps those who need it, while positively affecting factors underlying common perceptions of safety for everywhere from public transportation to the Magnificent Mile.
Likewise, a new minimum wage increase would be similarly multi-pronged.
Most obviously, it would create a medium-term horizon of security and take the pressure off of everyday workers, particularly in light of rising expenses and family members whose well-being and livelihoods were harmed by Covid.
More subtly, it would alleviate uncertainty with the CTA and preemptively combat worst-case outcomes with the ominously developing situation there. Currently, federal money is preserving service, but ridership does not seem set to soon return to pre-pandemic levels. Hearings on CTA service and safety are possible in the short-term, and discussion of[further state or federal help is thankfully already occurring, since permanent changes like an increase in work-from-home will undoubtedly depress long-term ridership and fare revenue. But, some level of CTA service cuts seems inevitable within the next five years, and even seemingly small reductions in bus and train frequencies can have huge cascading effects on low-wage workers who commute long distances with connections. To the extent that a gradually increasing minimum wage intersects with service cuts, workers will be better equipped to tolerate an increased commute or consider a move closer to work, versus simply throwing in the towel because the jobs simply aren’t worth it anymore. Here too, employers would benefit from a reduction in employee churn, and at the cost of no worse disruption than has occurred with the slow and careful minimum wage increase of the past several years.
Lastly, a minimum wage increase would also combat crime, by making low-wage jobs more attractive for those who might otherwise be tempted towards other paths.
Right now there’s no magic bullets for the mounting number of severe, overlapping problems we’re facing, many of which deeply affect cities but are rooted in regional, national, and even global trends. But, we should be doing all that’s within our power, and another minimum wage increase would “help around the edges” and should definitely be on the table here in Chicago.
David Mihalyfy (@mihalyfy is an Independent Voters of Illinois - Independent Precinct Organization (IVI-IPO) board member, and ran against 11th Ward alderman Patrick Daley Thompson in the 2019 municipal election. He has been a member of SEIU Healthcare (HCII), and has taken part in unionization drives under the American Federation of Teachers, SEIU Local 73, and Teamsters Local 743.
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