After hours of passionate testimony from supporters and detractors of a higher minimum wage, the Arlington Heights Village Board narrowly agreed Monday night to opt out of Cook County’s minimum wage and sick day ordinance.
The village joins a growing list of suburban communities in Cook County that have rejected the countywide ordinance stipulating gradual increases to the minimum wage and requiring employers to offer a set number of sick days to employees.
Many board members argued the issue was best left to the state and federal government to legislate, expressing concern that the new ordinance would lead to a patchwork of laws within the county, before voting, 5-4, to opt out of the ordinance.
The close vote that coincided with May Day struck a blow to the many local pro-labor groups, dozens of residents and county officials, such as Cook County Clerk David Orr and a representative for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who came to Arlington Heights Village Hall, urging board members to be a "great leader" and support the county ordinance.
"These are arguments we have fought for 150 years and every time, people say they can’t raise pay because it will hurt the businesses and so forth," Orr said. "The truth is, it doesn’t."
By opting out of the countywide ordinance, which the Cook County Board approved in October, village board members are allowing local businesses to continue offering the statewide minimum wage rate of $8.25 an hour, as well as forgo a county requirement on offering a number of paid sick days to employees.
The countywide ordinance establishes a gradual increase to the minimum wage for private, county-based businesses to $13 an hour by 2020. The first increase, to $10 an hour, is expected to take effect July 1, officials said.
The decision to opt out of the county ordinance was supported by Mayor Thomas Hayes and trustees Thomas Glasgow, Jim Tinaglia, John Scaletta and Bert Rosenberg, maintaining that issues with workers’ pay and sick days are best left to the jurisdiction of the state and federal government.
Trustees Richard Baldino, Carol Blackwood, Robin La Bedz and Mike Sidor voted against the opt-out measure, arguing the village should support and follow the county’s ordinance.
"I honestly believe we have the same goal and want to reach the same end — to make sure workers have a living wage," Hayes said. "I believe in my heart, soul and mind we should opt out, and place the burden where it belongs — on the state and federal government."
Hayes also said he was concerned by the number of neighboring communities, including Barrington, Mount Prospect, Schaumburg and Wheeling, that have already voted to opt out of the county ordinance.
If local business owners were forced to follow the county ordinance, it could create a "patchwork" of minimum wage laws, Hayes said.
"With a number of our neighboring municipalities opting out, our businesses would be at a disadvantage and the playing field would not be level," he said.
During discussions earlier this spring on whether to opt out, local residents who supported the countywide ordinance pointed to how roughly 75 percent of Arlington Heights voters indicated they would support paid sick leave in a non-binding referendum last year and how 65 percent of local voters favored a minimum wage increase in another non-binding referendum in 2014.
But Scaletta, one of the five board members who voted in favor of the village opting out of the county ordinance, said the non-binding referendum question pertained to minimum wage and sick day laws "on a statewide basis."
"I agree with increasing the minimum wage, but to do so countywide is not appropriate," Scaletta said.
La Bedz, one of the four board members who supported the county ordinance, said she spent "many sleepless nights" wavering from one side of the debate to the other.
She ultimately concluded that while the legislation of minimum wage and sick day laws should theoretically be tackled by the state and federal government, it was not likely to happen any time soon.
"We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good," La Bedz said. "Change has to start somewhere, and it can start with me voting against opting out."’
While the vast majority of those who shared their views with officials during the board meeting were supporters of the county ordinance, local business owner Al Panico was among those encouraging the board to opt out.
"The last thing we need is another set of bureaucrats enforcing an additional set of rules," said Panico, the owner of The Line Group, an Arlington Heights company with 22 employees.
Jon Ridler, the executive director of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, also supported the village’s decision to opt out of the county ordinance, saying the law would be detrimental to local small businesses.
"They do not have the funds to pay more, and more and more," Ridler said, adding that many businesses in town already pay above the minimum wage voluntarily. "It’s a bad ordinance because it’s unfair to the community."
Resident Mark Michaels, one of 30 residents and local labor leaders who gathered at a rally outside Arlington Heights Village Hall before the meeting, warned local officials that "everyone loses" when towns fail to provide a living wage and healthy workplace to employees.
Supporters of the county ordinance have said it would provide a raise to more than 200,000 low-wage workers in Cook County, as well as ensure paid sick leave for roughly 840,000 private-sector workers who currently receive no paid time off if they are ill and have to stay home from work.
"If the board acts to opt out of these ordinances, instead of promoting growth, the poor employment conditions will eventually become a drag on our economy and lifestyle," Michaels said.
While a handful of hecklers hurled insults at elected officials following the vote on the passage of the opt out measure, most of those who witnessed the vote appeared subdued and disappointed, rather than angry.
"I think it was short-sighted, with the board voting based on fear and philosophy, not all of the empirical evidence that shows that this does not hurt businesses," said resident Ann Gillespie. "The people of Arlington Heights clearly wanted this, so we will continue to fight for it at the state and federal level."