Minimum- and low-wage workers react to Gov. Pat Quinn’s ‘State of the State’ speech

January 29, 2014

Online Staff Report

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) called on state lawmakers to raise the minimum wage in Illinois and spoke forcefully about the urgent need to fight income inequality during his State of the State address today, Wednesday, Jan. 29.

Rachel Bittenbender makes minimum wage working the third shift at a Subway in Dixon, Ill. Forced by financial hardship to move back in with her parents, she works 38 hours a week, but still struggles to make ends meet.

“My mother is disabled and I’m happy to be back at home so I can help to take care of her, but I wish I could help her financially,” Rachel said. “There’s just no way for me to get ahead right now. I’d like to take certification courses so I can grow in a food service career, but I’m forced to put even basic necessities on credit or apply for loans to get by. That’s part of why our economy got so bad in the first place—people like me struggle just to stay afloat and don’t have the ability to plan for a sound financial future.”

Right now, Illinois’ minimum wage is $8.25 an hour.  Legislation is pending in both the state House and Senate that would raise the minimum in Illinois to over $10.65.  The bills are HB 3718, sponsored by State Rep. Art Turner, D-9, and co-sponsored by Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie D-25, and SB 68 by Stat Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-4.

Britney Swanson, 26, a nursing home worker in Galesburg, Ill., works full time making $8.35 an hour and is seven weeks pregnant with her and her boyfriend’s first child.  During his speech Gov. Quinn spoke about the estimated 400,000 minimum wage workers in Illinois  who are doing everything they possibly can to work hard and better their lives, but simply can’t get ahead making poverty level wages.  Britney is one of those workers who needs Illinois to raise the minimum wage. She lives with her brother and mom, who isn’t working due to a disability, to pull together enough money to make ends meet.

“Now that I’m pregnant, and thinking about my family’s future, I just don’t know how we’re going to make it,” said Britney.  “How am I going to be able to afford child care? I want to work and be self-sufficient, but to do that I have to make a living wage.”

The Raise Illinois coalition said that raising the minimum wage would strengthen Illinois’ economy, fight job loss, and help small businesses by putting more money in the pockets of consumers. It is estimated that raising the minimum wage to $10.65 per hour would inject a net of $2.5 billion into the state’s anemic economy.  In addition, over 71 percent of Illinois voters support raising the minimum wage according to a statewide survey by the National Employment Law Project.

There are an estimated 400,000 minimum wage workers in Illinois.   Minimum wage workers earn only $17,000 a year, working full-time. Behind these workers are hundreds of thousands of other people—children, spouses, aging parents—who rely on that worker for support.  In fact, 110,000 full-time Illinois workers are still living in poverty.  (The federal poverty threshold for a family of three is $18,284.)

Raising the minimum wage not only impacts workers and their families, but creates an economic ripple effect in their communities. Consumer spending drives our economy and consumers can’t spend what they don’t have. Minimum wage workers, like all workers, are consumers. In addition, businesses and organizations see cost savings from lower employee turnover and reduced expenses associated with hiring and training new employees. Higher wages increase productivity and improve product quality, customer satisfaction and company reputation.

“Our home care aides make it possible for deserving older persons to live at home, where they want to live, for as long as they want to live there,” said Darby Anderson, senior vice president of Addus HomeCare. “As a company that pays workers an average of $10.70 an hour we believe it is good business practice.  By paying a higher wage we have reduced the turnover of our employee’s, which has led to a more stable environment for the seniors we care for and the company itself.”

Minimum-wage workers aren’t the only ones who desperately need Illinois’ minimum wage to go up. Hundreds of thousands of other low-income workers make slightly above the minimum wage but still struggle to survive.

Gabe Stanton is a home care worker with Addus.

“When I started in home care, I was making minimum wage–$7.75 an hour at the time. I was barely getting by, skipping some bills to pay others and putting necessities on credit,” Stanton said. “That’s no way to build a financial future. “Now, I make $10.20, but I’ll still stand and fight with Gov. Quinn to raise the minimum wage: not just because a higher minimum wage gives all low-wage workers the chance to earn higher wages, but because no working family should have to live in poverty.”

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