Two state legislators representing Forest Park are pushing to change a state law that allows employers to pay teenage workers less than minimum wage. The proposal is drawing fire from business groups arguing that, as the economy continues to sour, any further burden placed on entrepreneurs could be their death knell.
Rep. Karen Yarbrough and her colleagues in the House approved the measure earlier this year, and Sen. Kim Lightford has signed on as chief sponsor in the state senate.
Lightford, however, said she’s likely to let the bill sit idle until the spring when she hopes to gain enough support to push it through. The election season was a less than ideal time to pressure colleagues for their vote, said Lightford, and the economy isn’t helping.
The senator needs 30 votes and is only “a vote or two shy of getting it passed.”
“The business owners and the chambers, they’re always against any minimum wage increase,” Lightford said.
Earlier this month, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association sent notice of the bill’s progress to commerce groups across the state, urging them to contact their senator and ask that they vote it down. The Forest Park Chamber of Commerce and Development, which belongs to the association, has not taken a position on the proposal-nor is it bucking the association’s message.
Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park chamber, said she has not discussed the legislation with local business owners, but did forward an e-mail from the Illinois merchants group.
“I can understand wanting to keep things fair, but I can also see it being a difficult time for this to come along,” Kokenes said.
As the law stands, employers can pay an hourly wage of $7.25 to workers who are under the age of 18. The minimum wage in Illinois is $7.75 an hour. That 50-cent disparity is built into annual increases to the minimum wage so that in July of 2010 when adult employees are earning at least $8.25 an hour, their teen counterparts would make only $7.75.
Yarbrough signed on as a sponsor and helped push the bill through the House in April, but said she understands why her colleague in the senate is reticent. However, Yarbrough stressed that the state’s minimum wage doesn’t provide an adequate income, and she has heard from a number of teens who use the money to help support a household. The argument that many teen employees may be working to pay for pizza slices and movie tickets doesn’t outweigh the real need for low-income families, she said.
“We’ve got to be moving in the direction of living wages for everybody,” Yarbrough said.
The Park District of Forest Park is one of the village’s largest employers of teenage workers, carrying about 90 teens on its payroll, according to Executive Director Larry Piekarz. Jobs filled by teenagers at the park district range from supervising youngsters during a game of flag football, to keeping watch over hundreds of kids in the swimming pool.
Piekarz said he does not take the 50-cent discount allowed by state law in an effort “to be fair to the kids.”
“Sure, they’re not supporting a family, but most of the kids are good at saving,” Piekarz said. “They’re paying for school and helping their parents. I don’t begrudge the kids anything they can get.”