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As Minimum Wage Rises, So Does Pay Gap For Youngest Workers

Lifeguard on duty
David Kohl
Lifeguards, camp counselors, and other young workers are the largest demographic of employees for Illinois park districts.

This month over a million Illinois workers who make the minimum wage got a pay increase, with another raise coming July 1. It was Illinois’ first minimum-wage increase in nearly a decade.

Minimum-wage workers under 18 are getting more money too, but not as much. And the gap between what the youngest workers and everyone else makes will only grow over the next six years. 

Before Jan. 1, the minimum wage was $7.75 an hour for those under 18—50 cents less than for everyone else. On Jan. 1, the minimum wage for those under 18 climbed to $8 an hour, which is now $1.25 less than older workers. That gap will climb to $2.75 an hour in 2022, when young workers will make $9.25 an hour and everyone else will make $12.

“Equal work deserves equal pay, and the fact that minors are paid less for the same labor carried out by adults is entirely unfair,” said Ari Whitlock, a sophomore at Normal Community High School who is a co-founder of the Bloomington-Normal Youth Activists organization. 

Illinois Minimum Wage
The minimum wage increase, signed into law last February, was one of Gov. JB Pritzker’s first major legislative achievements. Illinois is one of the first states to set a minimum wage of $15 an hour, which we’ll hit by 2025. Pritzker called it a “victory for the cause of economic justice.”

A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Labor stressed that the lower youth minimum wage only impacts those who work 650 hours or less in a year (or 12.5 hours per week). Anyone young person working more than that would qualify for the regular, higher wage. 

Pritzker signs bill
Credit GovPritzker / Facebook
Gov. JB Pritzker signs the minimum wage increase into law on Feb. 19, 2019.

“While the Illinois Department of Labor did not set the rates, our department is tasked with enforcing them,” said IDOL spokesperson Mike Matulis. “It is important to note that the youth rate is aimed at young people working part-time or possibly seasonal jobs.” 

One reason that those under 18 will make so much less than everyone else is Illinois park districts. 

The Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD) lobbied hard to increase the exemption—or the gap between minimum wages—for workers under 18, said spokesperson Bobbie Jo Hill. Lifeguards, camp counselors, and other young workers are the largest demographic of employees for Illinois park districts, she said. Nearly half of park district employees statewide are under 25, she said. 

That means paying a 17-year-old $9.25 an hour instead of $8 would have been costly and forced some park districts to reduce their program offerings or the number of hours they can operate. 

“We want to make sure our members are able to continue to hire youth, and this legislation was something we were involved with negotiating, so they can hopefully continue to do that,” Hill said. 

For many teenagers, their first job is often with the park district, she said. 

“It just depends on the type of opportunities that those youths are looking for,” Hill said. “There are maybe some that aren’t looking for the bottom-line dollar amount as much as the experience that they want to obtain.” 

Whitlock, the Youth Activists group co-founder, said it’s about equality. There are around 14,795 people between ages 15 and 19 living in McLean County. 

“People seem to believe that when people under 18 are working, they are doing it for leisure. That’s not the truth,” she said. “Most people I know who have jobs directly contribute to their family’s total income and have a large part in paying bills. Most under 18 are not working for the fun of it. It’s a necessity, and they deserve the same pay their adult counterpart would receive.” 

While the pay gap would still affect food service and retail jobs, it won’t be as noticeable for Bloomington and Normal parks and recreation workers under age 18. 

The City of Bloomington, which employed over 50 part-time seasonal employees under 18 last summer, will pay all part-time employees $10 an hour this year. There are no lower wages for those under 18 because the city “pays based on job, not age,” a city spokesperson said. 

It’s the same for Normal Parks and Recreation, said Director Doug Damery. Normal has almost 600 part-time employees working each summer during peak season. 

Normal employs some 16- and 17-year-olds, he said, but most of its younger workers are college students from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan. Using a different wage scale for employees doing essentially the same work would be unnecessarily complicated, Damery said. 

“It’s more cumbersome to do it then to just pay what the minimum wage is for 18 and over,” Damery told WGLT. “When you’re talking about lifeguards and those kinds of jobs, you’re doing the same thing as the others are.” 

However, the minimum wage increase in general will be “really, really challenging” over the next four to five years, Damery said. (The $15 topline wage will be phased in over the next six years.) 

“Before the minimum wage increase, we tried to pay above minimum wage. Now we’ll really struggle to pay the minimum,” Damery said. 

One issue is that the wage jumps are not that far apart, he said. The next jump (from $9.25/hour to $10/hour) happens July 1.

“We’ll do the best we can to take into account experience and those kinds of factors, job responsibility, and we’re gonna try to pay what’s fair based on those things. But the reality is, we’re probably going to have to compress that differential between our most experienced and highest-responsibility (employees) and what the minimum wage is,” Damery said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.