I wanted to take a moment to talk about my first significant act in politics, helping to pass the library’s annual budget. For the most part, our Oak Park libraries are so well run by their amazing staff, that I’ve had very little to do in the trustee board meetings since May, except listen and learn.
There’s a steep learning curve when you’ve been entrusted with shared responsibility for a cultural landmark and community resource. I read the agendas diligently, and came prepared to the monthly meetings with questions, and over time, I’m coming to understand the ins and outs of how our libraries function. (Very well; we are quite lucky that Oak Parkers are willing to support the library so strongly.)
But I did see something that concerned me in one of the earlier draft budget agendas — that a significant percentage of library staff weren’t being paid a living wage. I’ve generally been a strong proponent of the Fight for $15, have even marched and rallied with workers fighting for a living wage. And here in Oak Park, a relatively wealthy suburb with quite a glorious library system, it seemed a shame that library staff weren’t being paid at a rate that actually was appropriate, given inflation and housing costs in the area.
So I brought it up with the board, and we then had a robust discussion. More than a few board members strongly agreed with me about this being a concern — the question was, what exactly we wanted to do about it.
The library employees are divided by grade, each a certain percentage apart, based on experience, skills, etc. We couldn’t simply raise every employee’s wages commensurately and be done with it — raising grade 1 to $15 / hr, and all the higher grades the same percentage upwards. That would have added about $1.5 million to the budget, which would’ve been quite the significant increase to property taxes.
But of course, not all the employees were making under $15 / hr, only the lower grades — so what if we just raised the salaries for those workers? Make sure that the floor was a living wage; we could then leave the already higher-wage salaries alone?
Well, then you run into other difficulties, like salary compression causing potential resentment. When grade 4 salaries are almost the same as grade 5, but grade 5 employees have put extra time into education, etc., that can cause challenges. And would employees start expecting big raises every year? I didn’t think so, as long as we were clear this was a one-time adjustment, to address a historic inequity, but it was worth thinking about and discussing.
We also talked about benefits — how many of our workers didn’t have health insurance? The library staff pointed out that they weren’t even sure how many people who were working part-time would want more hours, as some of them were retirees and teens who were happy to just work for a few hours each week at the library. I suspected, though, that a smaller percentage of those workers (shelvers, etc.) were retirees and teens than in the past. Some of them were probably adults, possibly supporting families.
It was a long discussion, even a little heated at times. I admit — I’m not used to being confrontational; I’m conflict-averse by nature, so I had to steel myself a little to even bring the issue up, much less pursue it. But fair pay is a cause I really believe in, and that made it easier to raise issues of potential conflict.
I also want to emphasize here that everyone in the discussion, trustees and staff, wanted to support our lower-wage workers fairly — the question was how to best do so in a responsible manner, keeping in mind our duties to taxpayers.
At the end of our discussion, the librarians went back to try to put together another budget, one that increased pay at the lower levels slightly. They also surveyed the staff, to find out if they actually wanted more hours.
We ended up with a compromise that wasn’t as much as I’d hoped for, but was, I think, an improvement. 34 part-time positions are moving from 15 – 20 hours per week, making those staff members eligible for benefits such as sick leave and vacation time, and retirement fund participation. We had already planned to raise the base salary slightly, but we decided to move it up a little further, to $12 / hr, starting July 1. I’m hoping that these changes will make a significant difference in these employees’ lives, and help make the libraries even more a place that Oak Parkers can be proud of.
We’re now in sync with the City of Chicago, rather than lagging behind, and I’m planning to keep pushing for us to do even better in future years. I’d like to see Oak Park as a leader in the fair wage struggle going forward. I’d like to see us at $15 / hr soon, and have wages indexed to inflation going forward. Wages were stagnant for a long time, and didn’t come close to keeping up with inflation. I think we can do better by our people.
And yes, Oak Parkers, that means I’m going to keep pushing to raise your property taxes, just a tiny bit. Is it worth a few dollars a year to you, to know that the staff at our beautiful library are paid a fair, living wage? I hope so. If not — well, you can vote me out in 2021, if I run for office again. If I do run again, and you vote for me, know that I’m going to keep pushing for economic equity across the Village.
There’s a little transparency in government for you.