Chicago Council OKs 'Big Box' Wage, Benefit Bill

July 27, 2006 ( - In a move that echoes several states' efforts to pressure large retailers to offer richer employee health care packages, local Chicago lawmakers have approved a measure setting a minimum wage and benefits package for "big box" retail firms.

Approved by City Council on Wednesday, th e Chicago ordinance will require retailers that have stores that are at least 90,000 square feet and generate $1 billion in annual sales to pay workers a minimum wage of $10 an hour and $3 an hour in benefits by 2010, according to the Chicago Tribune. The bill is the first of its kind in a major city and affects 19 retailers including Target, Sears, Home Depot and Bloomingdale’s, according to the news report.

Michael Lewis, president of Wal-Mart’s Midwest division, told the newspaper that if the city council approved the bill, Wal-Mart would “put more time and effort in the suburbs,” in particular focusing on those close to the city in order to draw shoppers across city lines. “Our preference is to serve the people of Chicago in their communities, and we will do what we can to keep up with significant consumer demand from city residents,” Lewis added late Wednesday in a written statement issued after the Chicago vote.


David Vite, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, told the Tribune that the battle isn’t over. Retailers are holding out hope that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley will veto the bill. If that doesn’t happen, they will file a lawsuit, he said.

“We recognize Chicago is our biggest business opportunity going forward,” said Lewis. “I certainly believe they’re paying too much for groceries in the city of Chicago.”

Lewis, president of Wal-Mart’s Midwest division, told the newspaper that the company plans to expand to 40 Supercenters in the Chicago area in the next three years both by building new stores and expanding existing stores. Wal-Mart currently has only a handful of Supercenters in the outlying suburbs.

“Our share of the market is relatively low in Chicago,” said Lewis. “And that’s an opportunity for us. We think there’s tremendous opportunity to double or even triple our market share in Chicagoland.”

Last year, Wal-Mart skirted a big-box ordinance in Dunkirk, Maryland, that put a 75,000-square-foot cap on store size by proposing a 74,998-square-foot store next to a 22,689-square-foot garden center, each with separate entrances and cash registers.

Those trying to pressure giant retailers like Wal-Mart to offer better health care benefits to their workers suffered a setback when a federal judge recently threw out that state’s new health care law that subsequently served as a model for other states interested in following Maryland’s lead.