ROCK FALLS – Gov. Pat Quinn finished his dinner at La Familia on Wednesday and told the crowd that had gathered at the restaurant to see him that he'd have to come back soon.
Click here to see video of Quinn's visit.
"This was the best food I've eaten all week," the Hinsdale-born Democrat said.
"I would have liked to order more food, but I can't afford it," he quipped.
Quinn took what he calls the minimum wage challenge this week and said he is living on $79, the average amount a full-time minimum wage worker is left with after housing costs, transportation and taxes, as calculated by his campaign team.
The governor's challenge is part of a big push by state Democrats to drum up support for a referendum that will be on the Nov. 4 ballot that asks voters if the state's minimum wage should be raised. Rock Falls was making his eighth and final stop of the day, seven of those to visit cafes and fast-food restaurants and speak with low-wage workers.
"My purpose in traveling across Illinois today is to help the moms and dads who work at some of the hardest jobs in our state and make only $8.25 an hour," Quinn said. "My mission is to do the right thing for everybody and make sure no one is left out."
Billionaire businessman Bruce Rauner, Quinn's opponent in the Nov. 4 election, opposes a minimum wage increase, and the governor's new ad campaign takes aim at the disparity between the candidates on the issue.
Quinn believes that a minimum wage bump to at least $10 an hour is a key step in driving economic growth and addressing poverty.
"Several studies, including one done by the Federal Reserve, show that this will give people more purchasing power, boost the economy, and allow businesses to save money by keeping employees longer," he said.
Local businessman Liandro Arellano said that, while the governor's argument makes sense in theory, it isn't that simple in practice.
"I lived on minimum wage as a kid, and now I'm a business owner," Arellano said. "I fear my taxes will be raised, and I'm already maxed out on labor. What am I supposed to do?"
Quinn said that by increasing the minimum wage to $10, a half-million Illinois consumers will make an extra $4,800 a year, much of which will be spent at local businesses.
But Arellano said he believes inflation would rise along with wages, thus defeating the purpose.
"He makes it sound like a silver bullet, but it's not," the owner of several Jimmy John's restaurants said. "Business owners will have two options – raise prices or fire people. People want a better job or a promotion, not an extra dollar an hour."
Dave Barajas, owner of La Familia, supports the minimum wage increase. Barajas had extended the invitation through state Rep. Mike Smiddy for Quinn to use his restaurant as a stopping point on the minimum wage circuit.
"I think it is important to show employees that you value them," Barajas said. "If you have a good product and good service, I believe the bottom line will take care of itself."
Larry Meyer of Rock Falls, a retired steel mill worker, said a much broader conversation is needed about stimulating the state's economy. He said the fact we have become so dependent on service jobs is problematic.
"We have to get our factories back, or we are in trouble," Meyer said. "We can't survive as a nation without making products. All we are creating is more service jobs, and the wealth is being drained from our country."
Quinn said a full-time minimum wage worker in Illinois makes about $17,000 a year, which is below the federal poverty level of $19,790 for a family of three. He said investing in education is also key to economic growth.
"We have to provide skills for 21st century jobs, and it can't be done on the cheap," Quinn said. "It's not easy, but I remember 40 years ago I shook the hand of Cesar Chavez, and he looked at me and said 'together we can.'"
Minimum wage in Illinois
Current minimum wage: $8.50 an hour
Quinn's proposal: Increase to at least $10 an hour
Full-time minimum wage worker's annual income: About $17,000
Federal poverty level: $19,790 for a family of three
Increase to $10: Workers would make an extra $4,800 a year