Business owners, workers criticize minimum wage ordinance


Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/MCT

A surplus $1 dollar coins are seen in storage at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond in Baltimore, Maryland on August 22, 2011. Evanston small business owners and minimum wage employees expressed concerns with the increased minimum wage.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

The motto of Hecky’s Barbecue may be “It’s the Sauce,” but for owner Hecky Powell the restaurant’s mission is about more than just finding the perfect flavor.

Formerly the executive director of Evanston Neighbors at Work, a social service organization that provides housing assistance to low-income residents, Powell uses his business to give back. He has historically hired Evanston high school students through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, a non-law enforcement crime prevention initiative that connects local at-risk youth with jobs (but that faces its own wage criticisms), as well as from the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, 1902 Greenbay Rd.

Teaching these young employees a greater “work ethic” has paid off, he said. One former employee has become a pilot, while others have landed jobs as teachers, nurses and truck drivers.

But for the small business owner, Evanston’s wage hike has prompted staff cuts — from 22 employees to 15. And he’s raised his prices, too — most menu items are now priced 10 percent higher than they were before the wage increase.

Powell said he’s shouldered some of the burden.

“I don’t just sit around at the desk,” said Powell, who opened the restaurant in 1983. “I have to cook. I have to make up coal. So I work, too. Because the government, they’re pushing me out of business.”

A 2017 Cook County ordinance will gradually raise the minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $13 an hour by July 2020. But for some small business owners, this raise has proven financially challenging.

And for some minimum wage employees, it’s still not enough.

Evanston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Roger Sosa said he hasn’t received complaints from small business owners or minimum wage workers about the ordinance’s effects, which he said is surprising. He added that if business owners were to express concerns, the chamber would assist them in cutting other costs.

“If you can’t cut wages, then what can we do to help you with other things?” Sosa said. “It would be trying to help them with business planning and business strategy so they can continue to be profitable.”

Sosa said Evanston’s well-educated population — over 66 percent of residents have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher — means relatively few residents work minimum wage jobs. But those who do work minimum wage jobs say the wage hike hasn’t felt significant.

James, who declined to share his last name for privacy concerns, has worked at Uncle Dan’s Outdoor Store for a year and a half. The ordinance increased his wage by $1.75 per hour, from $11.25 per hour to $13 per hour.

“It’s doable,” he said. “I can definitely make ends meet with $13. It’s not a safety net, but I can definitely budget myself.”

Subsidized temporary youth employment programs, like the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, are excluded from the wage increase. Many young workers, like Bernice Olla-Chatman, won’t benefit from the ordinance.

When Olla-Chatman’s brother prepared to leave for college this summer, her mother, who single-handedly raises three children, prepared to face more financial burden. The Evanston Township High School junior knew she needed to support her family, so she got a job at Evanston’s HAIR Science, scheduling appointments, cleaning the salon and resupplying products for $8.50 an hour.

Olla-Chatman found the job through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. She wants to be a hairdresser, and said her job gave her real-world experience in the beauty industry. But she said the wage, which the program subsidized, wasn’t enough to support students under financial strain.

“I think they were setting it because kids were mainly doing it because they just wanted extra money,” Olla-Chatman said. “They really don’t pay attention to kids who really need the job because they’re supporting their families. They’re taking it from the view that if you live in Evanston, there’s really no problems there.”

For Powell, training young workers requires hiring — and paying — other employees, and the increased wage, as well as business taxes, health insurance costs and licensing payments, adds up. He said city government officials who advocated for the wage hike don’t understand the financial difficulties of small business ownership.

They don’t have a clue,” he said. “The government doesn’t have a clue. They don’t understand what it costs to stay in business.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @herscowitz

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