It’s been over two weeks since dozens of Forest Parkers, including me, spent two and half hours in the council chamber of village hall hearing arguments for and against raising the minimum wage and mandating earned paid sick leave. Here are some takeaways. 

Process matters. The council voted on two major items at the June 12 meeting; commissioners approved the ‘welcoming’ resolution but voted to opt-out of the Cook County minimum wage hike and mandated sick leave. Most attendees seemed happy about the former and disappointed in the latter. The difference in reaction, I think, can be attributed to process.  The welcoming resolution was the result of the give and take of many people over five months.  The opt-out ordinance was given just four days to gestate. Important and especially controversial issues deserve and require time and a lot of back and forth between stakeholders. 

Advance notice.  The minimum wage debate echoed what happened with video gaming.  Short notice of an impending vote makes many residents believe, whether it’s true or not, that their elected officials are trying to sneak something past them.

Honor referendums.  Likewise, both in the case of video gambling and the minimum wage, Forest Park voters had clearly made their views known in referendums. The commissioners went ahead and voted in what seemed to be opposition to the will of the people. Honor referendums, or give extremely plausible reasons why not.

Bringing in ‘foreign’ troops doesn’t help.  Commissioner Byrnes voiced his frustration at Cook County for imposing its will on Forest Park without asking for our input, and the mayor made the comment, “we’re not Oak Park,” which implied to me, at least, that using allies by the pro-minimum wage folks from other communities was counter-productive.

Be fair.  Some newsrooms have posted on their walls the quip, “If your mother says she loves you, verify it with other independent sources.” Functioning as a reporter on June 12, I heard a lot of “facts” which, if I were going to be responsible, needed to be checked out with other sources.  When I did so, I discovered that none of the speakers were lying per se, but most were cherry picking facts which supported their arguments and leaving out those which did not.  

I heard, for instance, business owners predict devastating consequences for their own businesses in particular and the Forest Park business community in general if the village did not opt out of the ordinance.  

So, I contacted the Rev. CJ Hawking, one of the organizers of the large crowd which gathered at village hall to speak in favor of the minimum wage increasing.  She sent me research which showed that “higher minimum wages boosted worker pay without leading to any discernible loss of jobs or slowing of job growth to date.”

I heard another speaker on June 12 accuse Ferrara Candy Co. and other businesses of exploiting workers by starting them at $8.25 an hour and not giving them paid sick leave.  

So, I got in touch with a person who is personally familiar with the situation.  He confirmed that temporary employees at Ferrara start at $8.25, but added that it is raised to $8.75 after 30 days and to $9.25 after 60 days with some workers being paid more than that based on their responsibilities.  He said that Ferrara uses employees from temporary agencies to evaluate their performance, which if acceptable and full positions become available, the company will make an offer with wages much in line with local industry plus benefits including sick leave, full medical and dental coverage, tuition reimbursement and opportunities to earn college scholarships for the children of qualified employees.

Frame them as partners.  I have heard many perspectives on the minimum wage and paid sick leave. Workers sometimes rightfully claim that some employers exploit them by paying low wages and not giving benefits, while business owners rightfully counter that some employees exploit them and society by not working hard, failing to contribute to the success of the business and then crying discrimination when they are let go.

The challenge for a good conductor is to get the voices to sing in harmony instead of unison or worse yet dissonance.  

So, who is responsible for helping those who can’t help themselves?

Is it individuals who should quit whining that the system in particular and life in general is against them, go to school, work hard and take advantage of the many opportunities in this land of the free and home of the brave?

Is it businesses who should pay a living wage and provide paid sick leave for everyone, even those who can’t or won’t pull their weight in a very competitive market place?

Or, is it government?  Is it our village government which has limited resources?  Is it our state government, which right now is dysfunctional?  Is it the federal government?  

Or is it an all hands on deck approach with everyone pulling together?  Pulling together requires trust and trust requires understanding and understanding happens when folks sit down together with a beer and pizza and listen. 

Finding a way to do that in this town will no doubt be a challenge, because business owners tend to work here but not live here and worker advocates often live here but earn their living somewhere else during the day. But, in my opinion, it is worth the effort.   

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