What is it about this nation that we value suffering so much? Why is it so hard to do the right thing?

Last year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a couple of laws – one that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour by the year 2020 and another that would allow hourly workers to earn up to five paid sick days a year. In other words, the county board voted to provide low-wage employees with some common decency.

And yet communities in suburban Cook County – Riverside followed suit last week – are lining up to opt out of the county laws, because their business communities are against the measure. They say it pits communities against each other. If we increase wages and the town next door doesn’t, the argument goes, things will cost more and people will flee to the nearest place to save a dime on a bag of Fritos.

Thirteen bucks an hour – for a full-time employee that’s $26,000 a year. Is that so much to ask employers to pay workers who have rent to pay and children to feed? And enough of this canard that these jobs are for teenagers whiling away the summer.

You go to the North Riverside Park Mall or to any of the fast food places in the area. The people working there on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall and spring are adults. The fact they are cooking your fries and assembling your hamburger doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be paid a living wage.

Ellen Hamilton, the only Riverside trustee to unequivocally support following the county’s lead, was right. It is beneath us to deny people a living wage and the ability to take a damn day off when they’re sick or their kids are sick.

The business community claims it cannot afford the increase in the minimum wage, although many also at the same time claim they are already paying the suggested increase – and more. If they are already paying the increased wages, then there ought to be no problem enshrining it into law.

And if the businesses are still paying $8.25 an hour to their employees, then they ought to be ashamed. Who with a family can live on $17,000 a year? Why do we use wages as punishment for not having been so fortunate to have been born in better circumstances or not having been able to afford a college education or for having had the misfortune to make a mistake in life?

Why shouldn’t wages be used as positive motivation? Businesses that pay their employees more and provide them with benefits such as sick days are more likely to attract loyal workers, and the money they make will go directly back into the economy, patronizing other businesses. People making $13 an hour aren’t stashing it away; they’re spending every last dime of it, because it’s still barely enough to live on.

North Riverside and Brookfield will soon be taking up the subject, because the county laws go into effect July 1. Leaders there have indicated they’re leaning toward opting out.

Here’s a suggestion. Do the right thing.

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