Business, Labor at Odds over New Laws

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Byline: Jon Davis Daily Herald Staff Writer

The minimum wage is going up, equal pay is now required, and companies have five more years to help bring the unemployment insurance trust fund back into the black.

Welcome to 2004 and new state laws affecting employers and employees.

To hear labor and business assess the new legal lay of the land, however, is to realize their ships passed through 2003 with as much amity as HMS Surprise and the French warship Acheron in Peter Weir's movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

And with Democrats in charge of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office for the first time in decades, it's not surprising unions seemed happier than business.

The Equal Pay Act, for example, makes small businesses more vulnerable to lawsuits and for what, she asked.

"It seems like a throwback issue to the '70s," she said. "I'm a woman and I've been in the workplace for years, and I don't see a problem with equal pay. I feel like this session was a bit of a heyday for the bra-burners."

The only good thing to come out of Springfield, Maisch said, was a law creating a single Web site for small businesses, listing laws and regulations affecting them.

Margaret Blackshere, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, which represents 1 million workers, disagreed.

"I think it was a good year for workers, but I don't think that makes it a bad year for business, which is how it sometimes gets played out," she said. "We didn't get everything on our agenda through."

Labor's biggest victories, she added, were the increase in the state's minimum wage, corporate accountability "because we witnessed a couple of plants that left the state of Illinois after getting tax breaks," a film production tax credit and the unemployment insurance trust fund agreement.

Moreover, she said the minimum wage increase was staggered at business' request, the equal pay law simply extends the federal law to cover smaller companies, and corporate accountability is good for everyone. The minimum wage rises 35 cents to $5.50 today and to $6.50 a year from now.

JayDee Shattuck, president, Illinois Chamber of Commerce's Employment Law Council, was diplomatic in his year-end assessment, but left little doubt he, too, was disappointed.

"I think employers in Illinois are going to have to be one step more vigilant in how they deal with employees," he said. "For Illinois employers, it's gotten one step more challenging."

Moreover, laws like the requirement that individual and group health insurance plans cover FDA-approved contraceptives and related services help drive up the costs of health insurance and of doing business here, Shattuck said.

Changes to the state's unemployment insurance formula "will have significant financial consequences for employers," but are still better than the law's previous version because about $1 billion in penalties over five years were eliminated, he said. …