Riverside joined a growing list of communities opting out of Cook County’s minimum wage and earned paid sick day law, with a 4 to 1 vote by trustees on April 20.
The decision to opt out, supported by the village’s business community, came despite the pleas of about 20 residents and activists who showed up for the meeting, carrying signs and urging the village board to either honor the county ordinance or postpone the vote.
“We’re privileged here in Riverside,” said Cristin Evans, a village resident. “It can be easy to forget that others work hard and still struggle to pay rent or mortgage and clothe and feed their kids.”
The Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2016 passed two laws that would give a boost to low-wage earners. The first allowed full-time employees to earn up to five paid sick days per year (part-time workers earn sick days on a pro-rated basis). The second increases the minimum wage from its present $8.25 an hour to $13 an hour by 2020, bumping pay $1 an hour per year.
Both laws go into effect on July 1 and all Cook County municipalities must comply with the new laws unless they specifically vote to opt out.
Supporters of the county legislation point out that a full-time worker earning minimum wage earns about $17,000 annually and without paid sick days may feel compelled to go to work when they or their children are ill.
“Any vote that prioritizes businesses over the best interests of the community is not fitting with who we are as a village,” said Riverside resident and business owner Jennifer Fournier, one of about a dozen people who made public statements in support of the county legislation at the April 20 board meeting prior to the vote.
“I understand that businesses are always looking out for their own bottom line,” Fournier said. “But that profit should not be at the expense of others trying to make a living wage, and it certainly should not happen in Riverside.”
Riverside residents voted to support both increasing the minimum wage and providing workers with paid sick days in a pair of non-binding referenda in 2014 and 2016. In 2014, voters in Riverside supported raising the state’s minimum wage by a 67 to 34 percent margin.
In North Riverside and Brookfield, where leaders have also indicated they may opt out of the county ordinances prior to July 1, support for a higher minimum wage was even higher at 74 and 73.5 percent, respectively.
Voters in all three villages even more strongly supported the concept of paid sick leave for workers, with 74 percent voting for it in Riverside and 83 percent of voters supporting it in Brookfield and North Riverside.
The fact that so many Riverside residents voted in favor the non-binding referendum questions, said Riverside resident Peter Dowd, was revealing in that most residents of Riverside, where the median family income is about $80,000, wouldn’t benefit from the law.
“[Residents] did that as a matter of public policy,” Dowd said. “I think they recognized the benefit to the community of providing both an increase in the minimum wage and this kind of sick pay.”
But four of the five trustees voting on the measure (Trustee Doug Pollock was absent) agreed with the president of the Riverside Chamber of Commerce, David Moravecek, that the county law creates an “unlevel playing field” and pits suburbs against each other.
“It would put us at a distinct disadvantage,” Moravecek said.
Moravecek also stated many Riverside businesses already paid wages higher than the minimum, including at the $10-an-hour baseline that will go into effect on July 1. Local businesses, he said, would support a state-wide minimum wage law.
Longtime Riverside businessman Eric Sundstrom also urged the village board to opt out, calling the county ordinances “purely political” measures that were part of the statewide Democratic Party’s battle against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“Who does it hurt in the long run? The businesses,” Sundstrom said.
But Trustee Ellen Hamilton, the lone vote in support of honoring the county ordinances, was having none of it.
“I think it’s beneath us,” Hamilton said.
Responding to Moravecek’s claim that many businesses in Riverside already pay at or above the proposed minimum wage, she argued that opting in would have little effect on businesses.
“I think it’s up to us to act as responsible citizens,” Hamilton said.
But Trustee Patricia Collins, the only other trustee to venture an opinion, said while she personally supported both an increased minimum wage and earned sick time, the current set-up that allows municipalities to opt in or out created an “unfair playing field to businesses.”
Collins also worried that opting in might hurt the village’s burgeoning economic development efforts.
“We are just building a business community in Riverside,” Collins said. “I would hate to do anything that would jeopardize those [businesses]. … To pull the rug out from under them at this point is very disingenuous on our part when we’ve been saying we’re pro-business and we’re trying to build our town.”
Collins voted to opt out, along with trustees Joseph Ballerine, Scott Lumsden and Michael Sedivy.