With the stroke of a pen, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday borrowed a symbolic move from his former boss President Barack Obama, signing an executive order raising the minimum wage for employees working for city contractors.
There was one key difference between Emanuel’s maneuver and Obama’s in February: the president issued an executive order raising the pay of federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 because he couldn’t get Congress to act on increasing wages.
The mayor could have easily gotten his 50 fellow Democrats on the City Council to approve the city move, as had been done in the past. But with low job approval numbers and a re-election bid on the horizon, the mayor used the signing ceremony to hitch onto a popular progressive issue: raising Chicago’s minimum wage to $13 an hour for all workers.
“This is a down payment and an effort to make sure the city of Chicago is on record to raising the minimum wage to $13 just like the president did on the national level,” Emanuel said.
“We’re taking the steps in the city of Chicago to make sure if you work, your kids aren’t raised in poverty, your paycheck pays, you get a raise and that we have the policies that set a clear priority.”
Emanuel has strengthened his position on raising the minimum wage in recent months and has appeared at a series of events to draw attention to the issue — from a local round table last week with Vice President Joe Biden to a Manhattan forum hosted last month by New York Mayor Bill deBlasio.
The executive order the mayor signed Wednesday requires that all contractors and subcontractors who
get work with the city pay workers a minimum of $13 an hour, starting with new contracts inked after Oct. 1. The new rule will benefit what the city estimated are 1,000 contracted employees, typically landscapers, maintenance workers, security officers, concessionaires and custodians.
By contrast, Emanuel has said that increasing the minimum wage across the city would give raises to some 400,000 employees. In July, Emanuel endorsed a city task force’s proposal to raise Chicago’s minimum wage for all employees from $8.25 to $13 an hour by 2018, but said that wouldn’t be considered by aldermen until after state lawmakers tackle the issue after the Nov. 4 statewide election.
Many city contract employees who would see their pay go up to $13 an hour were already being paid $11.93 an hour under a city living wage ordinance adopted under Mayor Richard M. Daley.
That hourly wage was adjusted annually based on federal poverty guidelines, as called for under an ordinance passed by City Council.
Asked Wednesday why he didn’t take the measure through the City Council, Emanuel stepped away from the podium and left Jamie Rhee, the city’s chief procurement officer, to explain why.
“This is a bold statement by the mayor to issue an executive order so that we can immediately start in our bids, notifying the vendors that there is an increase, and that they can factor it into the bids going forward,” Rhee said.
Later, Emanuel spokeswoman Libby Langsdorf said Emanuel pursued the executive order because he “wanted to move quickly and send a message in advance of the statewide referendum in November and passing a city ordinance that would apply across the board.”
An advisory referendum question on the ballot this fall will ask Illinois voters if they favor increasing the statewide minimum wage to $10 an hour. Emanuel has said he won’t ask the City Council to act on Chicago’s minimum wage until after state lawmakers have had a chance to address the issue in a legislative session late this year after the election.
Under the new executive order, Langsdorf said the city would “anticipate there will be some higher costs” in future city contracts because of the new minimum wage, but could not offer any estimates. She also said City Hall does not currently track how many total city contract workers currently are employed, and she did not say how the Emanuel administration arrived at the estimate that 1,000 workers would receive raises.
Langsdorf also did not say whether the city currently verifies whether city contract workers are paid the rates required by the city’s living wage ordinance, but said the city’s procurement department would investigate if it ever “suspects that a company is not paying a living wage or an employee files a complaint.”
Tribune reporters Hal Dardick and John Byrne contributed.
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