I remember the first newspaper job I had working at the Galesburg Register-Mail.
I was a student writing obituaries over the summer making $3.35 an hour. That was the federal minimum wage back then.
I don’t know how many times that news editor would yell at me and say the word “cemetery” does not have an “a” in it.
My story is hardly unique.
Just about everyone I know can look back on a low-paying gig doing something like flipping burgers, bagging groceries or washing cars. Those jobs provided us with our first steps into the workforce.
They were where you learned skills like showing up for work on time, following directions, treating customers politely – or spelling “cemetery” correctly.
The minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage – just a starting one.
There is a push now to increase the Illinois minimum wage to $10 per hour. It is currently $8.25 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
Gov. Pat Quinn has taken to comparing opponents of the wage hike to Old Man Potter, the stingy banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Montgomery Burns, the greedy nuclear plant owner in “The Simpsons.”
Such comments make for good political theater, but they do little to advance public discourse on a challenging economic issue. Everyone in this political debate wants a more prosperous society – we just disagree on how that can be accomplished.
The problem with Quinn’s plan is the more you increase the cost of any particular commodity, the more you suppress demand. That’s true of candy bars, automobiles and anything you can think of – including labor.
Every time employers consider hiring, they ask themselves how that investment will enable them to earn money. If the cost of labor is too high they will simply opt not to hire anyone. It always has to pencil out.
And Quinn wants to raise the minimum wage by 21 percent. This would leave low-skill workers vulnerable – very vulnerable. Instead of having a low-paying job, they could face the prospect of no job at all.
“I’ll be the first to admit that you can’t support a family on a minimum-wage job,” said Kim Clarke Maisch, who heads the Illinois chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “But the vast majority of people with minimum-wage jobs are high school students, college students and people who aren’t the primary earner in their families.”
Illinois already has a minimum wage higher than any of its neighbors – and it has an unemployment rate higher them, too.
If a higher minimum wage would boost the economy – as Gov. Quinn and some of his would-be GOP opponents contend – we should now have the most prosperous job market in the Midwest, not the worst one.
Increasing the cost of labor will further exacerbate the problem. Low-skill workers will be denied that first rung on the economic ladder that they need to climb out of poverty.
And let’s face it: Working beats being unemployed any day of the week. Not only does work provide income, it also enhances a person’s self-worth.
Raising the minimum wage will make some low-skill workers too costly to hire.
And that’s denying opportunity to those who need it most.
What is Politics?
If a government worker doesn’t want to join a labor organization, in Illinois, they can still be forced to pay a “representation fee” to the union to cover the cost of collective bargaining.
None of that money is supposed to be spent on political activities.
But what exactly is politics?
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy this week noted that defining what is and isn’t political activity is difficult, as the Court weighed a suit by an Illinois woman that has the potential to reshape labor law throughout the nation. For example, he said collective bargaining for government workers affects the size of government — something that has political implications “in an era where government is getting bigger and bigger, and this is becoming more and more of an important issue to more people.”
Years ago, I remember asking then-state Sen. Carl Hawkinson if something was political.
His response was telling: “Politics is everywhere – even in the church.”
In other words, there’s no such thing as an oasis from politics.
Pensions are perhaps the most politically charged issue facing Illinois today. And yet, pension benefits are routinely negotiated in union contracts. So it’s difficult to see how that isn’t political speech. But such activities are paid for through representation fees imposed on workers who choose not to join a union.
And as anyone who has spent any time in Springfield knows, allocating money is what the legislature spends the bulk of its time doing.
So how is it that a union negotiating pay raises for workers is not a form of political speech? Unions are about solidarity and speaking with a unified voice.
That doesn’t leave much room for dissent – particularly from someone who doesn’t want to join a union. After all, those people don’t participate in union elections – but still have to pay money to the bosses who run the unions.
Half the states don’t impose this type of requirement on workers.
Earlier this week, I covered the case Harris vs. Quinn before the U.S. Supreme Court (see the report in this week’s PA). At the heart of the case is this question: Should government be able to force workers to give money to a union whose positions they may not agree with?
And does this violate the free speech rights of those workers?
It’s hard to see how that isn’t the case.
Extinguishing an ObamaCare Problem
Volunteer emergency responders may now “generally” be exempt from a requirement on large employers to provide insurance to employees working more than 30 hours a week, the Treasury Department said on January 10th.
“As a result of that review and analysis, the forthcoming final regulations relating to employer shared responsibility generally will not require volunteer hours of bona fide volunteer firefighters and volunteer emergency medical personnel at governmental or tax-exempt organization to be counted when determining full-time employees (or full-time equivalents),” Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy Mark Mazur wrote on the Treasury’s blog.
The Department was responding to an outcry over reports from Illinois News Network and several national publications that volunteer fire departments could be forced to limit worker hours to get around the new rule.
Under the Affordable Care Act, employers must provide health insurance for anyone working more than 30 hours a week or face a $2,000 fine per offense. Employers with 50 or more employees are subject to the requirement, which kicks in Jan. 1, 2015.
Volunteer fire departments can fall into this category, which creates an issue for the already cash-strapped departments. As a result, some departments here in Illinois and elsewhere face limiting volunteer hours.
This could mean both delayed responder time and smaller teams at the scene, fire officials said.
“We provide the service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we don’t have people available it kind of inhibits our ability to respond properly,” Antioch Fire Chief John Nixon told INN. “It creates concerns that we don’t have adequate staffing during the first 10 minutes of the fire, and this is of course the essential time.”
Citizens, however, will need to see the final policy before they can tell how “generally” America’s volunteer emergency responders will truly fare.