Deirdre Brooks, a Newark resident who works at a McDonald’s in Jersey City, points to three nasty-looking scars on her right forearm, marks she said she got while working a second job waiting tables in New York City.
“Their dishwasher is so hot. I don’t know what temperature that water is.” She points to one of her scars. “But I know I got this one trying to pick up this big platter they have for pizza.”
The restaurant where she works provides the wait staff with cloths to protect themselves so they don’t get burned while handling the dishes. But, Brooks says, “Half the time when I go in there I’m, like, sleepwalking.”
Brooks said she is often too tired zig-zagging between Newark, Jersey City, and New York to pay attention to what she is doing on the job. It has led to carelessness at both places of employment. The 2012 high school grad is trying to save money to attend college next year and works as many hours as she can so she can pay her bills and set aside funds for school.
Brooks said she earns $8 an hour at the restaurant across the Hudson $7.25 at the Jersey City McDonald’s. At present, New Jersey’s minimum wage is $7.25, the same as the federal minimum.
Some weeks she works as much as 30 hours in New York and another 25 at McDonald’s. Despite working more than the standard 40-hour work week, Brooks earns less than $450 a week between the two jobs before taxes. Her wages, she said, are too meager for her to contribute to her family’s rent in Newark, buy the fare cards she needs to get around, help with the family food bill, pay her cell phone bill, and save for college.
As a part-time worker at both jobs, she is not eligible for benefits.
Still, she says, “At least I don’t have kids. I can barely get by. But I can get by. But we got some people here [at McDonald’s] who got kids. They get the same money I get but they got two, maybe three kids. I don’t know how they do it.”
Brooks mentions a coworker who gets food donations from a local church and occasional help from the Hoboken Shelter, even though she isn’t homeless.
Although elections hold little interest for her, Brooks said she recently registered to vote after learning there would be a ballot question on Nov. 5 regarding a $1 increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage.
Raising it to $8.25
The ballot question will ask voters whether they wish to set a $8.25 minimum wage by amending the state constitution.
If passed, the new state minimum wage would, in the future, be tied to inflation and would automatically rise as inflation went up.
Democrats in the state legislature had earlier voted to raise the minimum wage to $8.50 and passed a bill that would have linked future hikes in the minimum wage to inflation. Gov. Christopher Christie vetoed that bill.
The governor instead proposed raising the minimum wage to $8.25 over three years and recommended that the Earned Income Tax Credit be raised.
Democrats in Trenton did not like Christie’s proposal and voted to place the matter before voters on the upcoming ballot.
Brian Calli, the manager of a pizza restaurant in North Bergen, admits he pays his employees the $7.25 minimum wage, and knows it isn’t enough to live on.
But, he says, “Business isn’t great right now. I pay them [the employees] what I can.”
Calli hasn’t decided whether he will vote in Tuesday’s election, but if he does, he will vote against the $1 increase on the minimum wage.
“I couldn’t support that knowing what it would mean for our business here,” he said, predicting that he’d have to cut a server to cover the higher mandated wages for the other employees.
Advocates: Too little to support a family
The last time New Jersey decided to raise the state minimum wage was in 2005, when the increase was phased in over two years, according to Jon Whiten, deputy director of New Jersey Policy Perspective. At that time, the minimum wage was $5.15 an hour, which was also the federal minimum wage. In 2006, New Jersey’s minimum went up to $6.15 an hour, and then it went up again to $7.15 in 2007.
When the federal government raised its minimum wage to $7.25 in 2010, the state wage went up along with it.
If approved by voters on Tuesday, Nov. 5, the state minimum wage will rise to $8.25 effective Jan. 1, 2014.
At the current rate, if an employee like Deirdre Brooks works a normal 40-hour week at McDonald’s, she will take home just over $1,000 a month, after taxes. As a teen who still lives with her mother, she can, as she said, “get by.”
Advocates who favor raising the wage point out that this income is too little to support a family, as Brooks’ coworker has apparently discovered. To make ends meet, these employees work multiple jobs, like Brooks, and supplement their income with charity and federal welfare benefits like Food Stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families.
A joint study by the University of Illinois and the University of California at Berkeley found that, nationally, 52 percent of fast food workers who earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 also receive some type of federal welfare benefit and rely on these benefits to make ends meet.
“What you hear from some business groups is that their expenses are rising. But expenses are also rising for workers and consumers,” said Whiten. “Rent goes up every year. Transportation costs and gas goes up every year. Food costs have gone up. So, essentially what these businesses are saying is it’s okay for taxpayers and the federal government to subsidize their low wages through welfare programs.”
At a press conference last week organized by New Jersey Policy Perspective and businesses that support the wage increase, several store owners said boosting consumer income will better enable them to support their local economies.
Critics: Too much, too soon
But other business groups say raising wages now will only further hurt fragile enterprises that are still trying to recover from the recession and, in some cases, Hurricane Sandy.
“Raising the minimum wage through a constitutional amendment will put New Jersey out of step with the majority of other states and all of the states in our region,” said Stephanie Riehl, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association (NJBIA), which has been lobbying voters to reject the increase.
“Rather than attempting to raise the minimum wage through a constitutional amendment, we believe the better choice would have been legislative approval of Gov. Christie’s proposed changes to [the legislative bill approved by Democrats], which would have increased New Jersey’s minimum wage statutorily,” Riehl added. “While any increase would still have been difficult for some businesses, the governor’s phase-in proposal recognized that many businesses are struggling in this economy and face the daunting task of rebuilding after Sandy. Put simply, they are not in a position to absorb a 14 percent wage increase all at once. By phasing the increase in over three years and eliminating the automatic cost-of-living increases in the future, we felt the Governor’s conditional veto would have provided businesses with the time and predictability they needed to prepare for an increase.
Riehl said that she has heard anecdotally from NJBIA members that they will cut staff to meet the higher wage if the ballot question passes at the polls.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.