Sophomore Isaac Hughes witnessed a cinematic scene on Tuesday. He stood in the Illinois Governor’s mansion behind legions of press, snapping photos as Governor J.B. Pritzker fulfilled a campaign promise by signing into law a bill to raise the minimum wage.
“I kind of got a sense that it was a really big deal that this was happening, people have been fighting for this for years in the state of Illinois,” Hughes said. “… We’ve been talking about all these issues from afar … but now we’re able to be at ground zero for where it’s all happening.”
The fast-moving SB 1 bill was signed by the governor within a week of making it through the state legislature.
Under the bill, the minimum wage will be raised at a gradual rate towards a $15 living wage. In 2020 it will move from the current $8.25 minimum to $10, and will proceed to be raised by a dollar each year.
VP of Finance Paul Eisenmenger stated that Knox had neither been opposed to the bill passing nor actively in support of it, and explained that the college will have to assess the potential effect the raise in wages will have.
“Over the long term, it’s likely our cost of labor is going to go up, and that has the potential to impact budgets,” Eisenmenger said. “… We’re just putting our arms around how many employees are affected, how many students are affected.”
Eisenmenger said the gradual raise in the wages will give Knox time to measure the future impact.
Although the bill allows some workers under 18 to be paid a lower wage — their minimum only reaching $13 by 2025 — there is no current exemption from the raise for colleges.
Facility and maintenance workers will continue to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and Eisenmenger forsees the bill potentially impacting union negotiations.
“For other non-unionized hourly workers, students É If wages go up and you’re on federal work study, it might mean that you end up working fewer hours because your federal work study award is what it is,” Eisenmenger said. “… It’s really how to best utilize those federal dollars.”
While Hughes saw the minimum wage bill as a step forward, he emphasized that it is not entirely satisfactory. Hughes demonstrated in Springfield as part of one “One-Fair Wage Illinois,” advocating for better wages for tip-workers.
“It’s still a good thing that this bill is happening,” Hughes said. “The bad news is that it’s likely to leave tip-workers behind.”
The “One-Fair Wage Illinois” student group, which refers to itself as a task force, started when Saru Jayaraman came to campus as a speaker in October to discuss wage issues. Freshman Poornima Tata was shocked to learn the national minimum wage for tip-workers is set at $2.13 an hour.
“When I heard it that just seemed like such a low number — they’re supposed to make the rest by getting tips, which just isn’t fair,” Tata said.
Jayaraman, founder of an organization called Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, invited students to get involved and speak with her after her talk. Three students — Hughes, Tata, and sophomore Grace LaDuca took on the project as an independent study advised by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Ben Farrer.
“The system is set up to keep workers vulnerable,” Farrer said. “… The only way that things are going to change is if people work together.”
The group attempts to raise awareness about wage-issues on campus. Sophomore Jo Hill was part of the team’s presentation at Bioneers and was caught off guard by the reception.
“I was expecting like four people to show up, but the whole room was filled, people ran out of seats,” Hill said.
The talk focused on the belief that the tipping system is outdated and can lead to potential abuse of tip-workers due to their dependence on customers for tips.
“I’ve also worked in a restaurant before so I’ve seen first hand the effects that the tipping system has,” Hill said. “It creates a huge power inequality between the servers and the customers … if you’re relying on someone for your survival basically you’re going to willing to put up with a lot more.”
The Illinois minimum wage for tip-workers is set at 60 percent of the normal rate, meaning they will not reach the $15 minimum wage in Illinois under the new bill.
Although many states like Illinois have requirements for employers to cover the difference if tip-workers don’t reach the normal minimum wage with tips, Hughes believes these policies are insufficient.
“That doesn’t always happen. In fact, it’s really well known that there’s tons of loopholes and kind of tricks that restaurants will play to make sure that tip-workers don’t actually receive tips up to [the non-tipped minimum wage],” Hughes said.
In Springfield on Tuesday, Hughes and four other students approached various lawmakers, including Senator Don Harmon ‘88, a Knox Board of Trustees member.
The students thanked those who had supported the minimum wage increase and brought their attention to the tip-worker issue.
The group is planning to return to Springfield during spring break, when a new bill will be introduced to also raise tip-workers’ pay to the $15 level. As they work with other groups like YDSA and Student for Sustainability, Hughes sees potential for the fair-wage group to become a permanent part of campus.
“Even though we’re really happy for this new bill that’s going to increase the minimum wage … we’re also kind of bearing down and remembering we still have this long fight ahead of us,” Hughes said.