Minimum wage talk has university officials concerned

2014-02-21T00:00:00Z Minimum wage talk has university officials concernedKurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau
February 21, 2014 12:00 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Raising the minimum wage could cost Illinois' cash-strapped universities millions of dollars in added wages for their student workforce.

With lawmakers warning of tough budget times in the fiscal year beginning July 1, the proposal to bump the wage from its current level of $8.25 an hour to $10 or more an hour is raising red flags among university officials.

At Southern Illinois University, for example, President Glenn Poshard said an increase could cost his institution $3.2 million in additional wages at a time when the General Assembly may be considering further cuts in aid to higher education.

"We need an increase in funding in higher education," Poshard told members of a House appropriations panel Thursday. "We don't have any extra to run our university."

Similar scenarios are being played out in Normal, Charleston, Macomb and other university communities.

Illinois State University officials say the change could affect nearly 4,200 student workers currently earning the minimum wage at jobs ranging from campus food services to the student recreation center.

In all, the cost at ISU of an increase would be about $1.6 million, officials said.

Matt Bierman, budget director at Western Illinois University, calculated increased costs of $1.25 million based on a raise to $10.25 an hour.

He said an increase would force the university to either cut other programs, raise tuition or offer students fewer hours at a time when there are fewer financial aid options.

"The students need these dollars," Bierman said.

Eastern Illinois University predicts an increase will cost about $940,000. And, because the university has committed to no tuition increase next year, a minimum wage hike likely would trigger a reduction in the number of student workers, said Derek Markley, chief of staff to President Bill Perry.

The sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Kim Lightford, D-Maywood, said the current minimum wage just isn't enough.

"I just think it is important that we have a sustainable living wage in the state of Illinois," Lightford said.

She said lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn could someday fully fund universities, which have raised tuition in recent years to make up for a loss of state dollars.

"We'll get through our financial crises in our state budget and hopefully find a way to fund them (universities) at a greater rate," Lightford said.

But state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican who represents ISU, said university concerns mirror those in the private sector.

"One of the concerns of a minimum wage hike is the effect it can have on all types of businesses," Barickman said. "We should consider all of these issues as we move through the legislative process."

Lightford, meanwhile, said she remains at least two votes short of getting the proposal out of the Senate.

But, she said, that could change after the dust settles from the election.

"We're in a political season and some members might like to get beyond their primary elections. I have to take all that into consideration. I'm trying to be mindful of the timing," Lightford said.

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