Two members of the City Council plan to introduce an ordinance this week that would require contractors in city office buildings to pay their employees a living wage. The proposal, which would also apply to developments in Jersey City that receive $1 million or more in taxpayer subsidies, would primarily affect custodial, security, clerical, and food service workers.
If approved by the council, the ordinance would increase the wages of about 71 janitorial and security workers in roughly five to 10 city-owned and leased office buildings. The portion of the measure dealing with developments that receive $1 million or more in public subsidies would apply only to new projects and would not affect those developments that have already received city approval.
The measure will be jointly introduced by Ward E City Councilman Steven Fulop and Councilman At-large Rolando Lavarro Jr. at the City Council meeting scheduled to take place on Wednesday, May 9 at 6 p.m.
As the economy slowly struggles to regain its footing, some workers fear the recovery will move forward and leave them behind.
If approved by the council, Jersey City will join a handful of cities across the country, including Newark and New York City, that are taking the controversial step of mandating minimum wage standards. Such mandates have been passed despite fierce opposition from business groups who argue that living wage and prevailing wage laws are expensive to implement, hurt job creation, and lead to layoffs.
“Creating new jobs is important but it is equally important to make sure that those jobs pay enough for working people to climb out of poverty and join the middle class,” Fulop said. “For buildings that benefit from taxpayer subsidies, this is a sensible and equitable measure.”
Lavarro: ‘The hard-working people of Jersey City’
Under the Fulop-Lavarro proposal, vendors in office buildings owned or leased by the city, or which receive $1 million in economic development subsidies from the city, would be required to pay contracted workers the prevailing wages for these jobs as set by the New Jersey Department of Labor. According to the councilmen, in Hudson County the current prevailing wage for janitors is $15.70 an hour. Security officers would be paid at a level that is equal to at least 200 percent of the federal minimum wage. Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25 so that means security workers would be paid at least $14.50 under the ordinance. State prevailing wage standards also include health benefits and vacation time. The ordinance would further guarantee that clerical and food service workers – the lowest level of city contracted employees – receive at least $10.50 an hour.
The portion of the ordinance that pertains to developments that receive $1 million or more in city subsidies would only apply to new projects that have yet to be approved by the city. But the $1 million in Urban Enterprise Relocation grants that the city gave to Depository Trust and Clearing Corp. to move to Newport from New York, and the tax abatement deal given last year to Goya Foods to move here from Secaucus are among the types of corporate welfare that would, in the future, have to comply with the prevailing wage law, if it is passed.
“The millions of dollars in subsidies that the city gives out should not only work for the contractors, but also the hard-working people of Jersey City,” Lavarro said. “It’s time to level the playing field. This makes sure that workers will be able to cover the bare necessities – food on the table, a roof over their head, and take care of their health and well-being.”
In response to the proposal Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy said, “While we certainly support measures of wage equality for workers, we also do not want to create impediments to doing business with the city for local small business owners and minority and woman owned businesses. Like all ordinances, we will give this a thorough review and have a more comprehensive analysis [this] week.”
Fulop said the language of the ordinance is likely to include exemptions for small businesses.
City worker: ‘The pay never goes up’
Few workers saw their incomes rise during the recession, and many saw their take home pay slashed due to increases in health care costs, increases in employee contributions for benefits, furloughs, and layoffs. As the economy slowly struggles to regain its footing, some workers fear the recovery will move forward and leave them behind.
Thus, several living wage and prevailing wage laws have been enacted recently. And an increase in the minimum wage is under discussion in several states, including here in New Jersey.
“Hartford has a prevailing wage ordinance, as do Newark, Pittsburgh, and New York,” said Maia Davis, a spokesperson for SEIU, which supports the Fulop-Lavarro ordinance. The Fulop-Lavarro measure, she said, is similar to New York’s controversial measure.
The New York City Council recently passed, by a vote of 44 to 5, a living wage bill that requires companies that receive $1 million or more in low-cost city financing or abatements to pay at least $10 an hour, in addition to health benefits. Employers that choose not to offer health benefits must pay at least $11.50 an hour if they get $1 million or more in city abatements or low cost financing.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the measure. The council has enough votes to override Bloomberg’s veto and the mayor has vowed to go to court to try to block implementation of the law.
Last week Bloomberg News quoted the mayor as saying that prevailing wage laws are “a throwback to the era when government viewed the private sector as a cash cow to be milked, rather than a garden to be cultivated.”
But Davis countered: “For businesses that are getting city subsidies, they can pass along the higher wages because they are getting this public benefit. That should be part of their responsibility for getting that subsidy. If people at the bottom of [the income scale] can’t afford to pay for their essential expenses without depending on the government programs or getting into debt, that doesn’t help local businesses or help our economy get going.”
West of the Hudson River, Gov. Christopher Christie and state legislators are negotiating whether to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50. The business community, however opposes the move, arguing that New Jersey experienced little or no inflation during the recession.
But Jonathan Lacewell, a security officer at Jersey City Municipal Court said he can’t support his family on the S10.50 per hour he currently earns. “It isn’t enough,” he said last week in a prepared statement. “The pay never goes up.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.