Effective May 1, employers in Cook County will be subject to a new Wage Theft Ordinance that imposes harsh penalties on businesses that violate federal or state wage-payment laws. The sanctions are wide-ranging, and the ordinance makes Cook County one of the nation’s leaders in combating wage theft.

Why the new ordinance? The ordinance was introduced by Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski and co-sponsored by Board President Toni Preckwinkle and is intended to ensure that businesses that exploit low-wage workers by, for example, refusing to pay overtime, the minimum wage or even wages in general, do not benefit from Cook County contracts, licenses or property tax incentives.

The ordinance follows a similar measure that was passed by the city of Chicago in 2013, under which businesses found guilty of wage theft can have their business licenses revoked. Previously, in 2010, Gov. Patrick J. Quinn signed an anti-wage theft law that provided additional powers to the Illinois Department of Labor and increased civil and criminal penalties for wage violations.

The new ordinance generally applies to any “person,” including a “substantial owner.”

A substantial owner means any person who “owns or holds a 25 percent or more percentage of interest in any business entity seeking a county privilege, including those shareholders, general or limited partners, beneficiaries and principals; except where a business entity is an individual or sole proprietorship, substantial owner means that individual or sole proprietor.”

Under the new ordinance, employers will face severe penalties if they have admitted guilt or liability or have been adjudicated guilty or liable in any judicial or administrative proceeding of committing a “repeated” or “willful” violation of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, the Illinois Minimum Wage Act, the Illinois Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, the Employee Classification Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act or any comparable state statute or regulation of any state which governs the payment of wages.

One penalty an employer can face is to be found ineligible to enter into a contract with the county for a period of five years from the date of conviction, entry of a plea, administrative finding or admission of guilt.

Also, employers seeking to do business with the county are required to certify that they have not violated any of the above-referenced statutory provisions. Businesses that enter into contracts with the county after May 1 will be in default under such contracts if guilty of repeated or willful violations of any such statutes as described above.

Employers found ineligible to contract with the county due to the new ordinance, however, may submit a request for a reduction or waiver of the ineligibility period. Such a request must include information showing that a change in ownership has occurred, disciplinary action has been taken against the individual(s) responsible for the acts, remedial action has been taken to prevent any recurrence or any other factors that the employer believes are relevant.

Another penalty under the new ordinance is that an employer could be found ineligible to receive certain property tax incentives and be required to repay prior tax savings from such incentives.

Businesses seeking incentives must certify that they have not been found to have engaged in repeated or willful violations of wage payment laws within the five years prior to their application, and if the county or assessor becomes aware of any such violation in the prior five years, their classifications may be revoked unless they cure the violation within 45 days and request an exception or waiver.

Businesses located in unincorporated Cook County must obtain a two-year general business license from the county in order to do business. Those businesses that cannot certify compliance with the ordinance’s requirements may have their licenses denied or revoked.

An applicant for a business license who cannot make the required certification, however, may apply for an exception from the county board through the director of revenue at the time of the application. If the county board expressly finds that the exception is in the best interest of the county, the director of revenue shall continue through the review process set forth in the ordinance.

Employers in Cook County should be mindful of this new ordinance and ensure that their wage policies and practices are in compliance with all applicable wage-payment laws. They also should review any prior admissions or judicial and administrative findings to ensure that they can make the proper certifications to the county in any required contract, incentive or license applications.

It is also critical for employers to consider the effects of this ordinance on admissions they might otherwise make as part of a judicial or administrative proceeding or in a settlement of any claim for unpaid wages.

Violations of wage-payment laws now subject Cook County businesses not only to the penalties set forth in the various laws themselves, but also to the potential of contract debarment and revoked tax incentives and business licenses.