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Pay Fair or Pay Up
by Isaiah J. Poole
Businesses with low-paid workers could start shouldering the cost of the social services their employees rely on.
Have you ever complained about the cost of funding social programs for the poor? Then you should support a living wage for workers.
That's the message supporters of the Responsible Business Act are sending employers in Chicago. The bill would charge Cook County businesses for the cost of social services their employees have to rely on when they don't earn a living wage.
With so many adults having no choice but to take low-wage service jobs to support their families, "it just isn't fair that large companies aren't paying their workers enough to meet their basic needs," said County Commissioner Robert Steele when he introduced the legislation in October. "The Responsible Business Act is vital to ensure that companies that won't pay their workers a living wage don't force Cook County residents to pick up their tab."
Chicago's minimum wage went up to $10 an hour in July. Though that's higher than the paltry $8.25 minimum for the rest of Illinois, it falls short of the $11.66 an hour single adults in the county need to make ends meet, according to a widely used living wage calculator developed by MIT.
And it's way below the $23.53 an hour a single parent with a child requires.
The Responsible Business Act sets the threshold for a living wage at $14.57 -- close to the $15 an hour that labor activists have been demanding. Companies can avoid a fee by at least matching that wage. Those that don't can expect to pay up to $500 million over the next four years, supporters estimate.
Grassroots organizers in the area have demanded a living wage for years. "But this idea that you pay fair or you pay up, that's pretty new," said Kristi Sanford of the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network.
At a hearing before the county board on October 20, Roosevelt University student Gianna Chacon testified that the $10 an hour she earns working at Marshall's "isn't enough to pay for groceries, rent, my phone bill, and textbooks." She's able to get health coverage through Medicaid but thinks her paycheck "should cover the basic necessities of life so those who cannot work are able to get the resources they need."
David Borris, who runs a catering business in the county, said he already pays his workers a minimum of $11 an hour. But he supports legislation that would level the playing field for all companies -- and put more money in the pockets of potential customers.
"The largest corporations in the country," he said, are raking in profits while asking taxpayers to cover "the gap between the low wages they pay and the real cost of living cost for hard working employees."
He's right. Nationally, corporations paying poverty wages cost U.S. taxpayers $152.8 billion each year in public support for working families, according to a University of California study.
At a time when states like Illinois are squeezing spending on aid programs, we need more legislative efforts that address the root of the problem: corporations that won't let workers support themselves -- and expect the rest of us to deal with the fallout.
Isaiah J. Poole is the online communications director at Campaign for America's Future.
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Economy: "Pay Fair or Pay Up"