While workers were still celebrating the historic signing of laws in New Jersey and New York to raise the state wage floor to $15 per hour, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey beat down the ceiling, poised for the dubious distinction of making his state the first to veto a $15 minimum wage.
Christie has assailed the proposal, while promising more tax breaks for corporations and property owners—measures that would further exacerbate the state’s extraordinary income gap and eviscerate school funding. His quashing of the most progressive labor legislation of his tenure would be a fine parting shot as he barrels toward the White House on the Trumpwagon—especially as debate on a $15 national wage floor intensifies in Washington.
A veto would rebuff about 975,000 New Jersey workers who would benefit from the bill. It would also curtail the expansion of the portion of workers supported by a $15 base wage. If it were enacted, National Employment Law Project estimates, the $15 wage floor would widen from 18 percent to 21 percent of the nationwide workforce, following raises in New York and California.
Reflecting national trends, about half of New Jerseyans who would benefit from the raise have some college education, more than half are women, about half are people of color, and the vast majority are over 20 years old. Most are full-time employed breadwinners and are found in retail, service and hospitality, and education and health-care jobs, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). Nationwide, more than 40 percent of workers earn sub-$15 hourly wages.
The opposition lobs standard arguments about potential job loss and interference with “free markets.” In fact, the state’s wealth gap reflects government intervention in favor of the rich.
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The calculation is apparently that taxpayer dollars are better spent when hoarded by wealthy property owners or corporations (though corporate subsidies actually bring a dismal return on investment, despite promises of “job creation”).
Meanwhile, decades of studies show that not only have minimum-wage increases not undermined workers’ overall economic security but also that New Jersey has suffered some of the country’s worst wage stagnation. The state’s richest 1 percent of households have captured over 80 percent of the rise in earnings since 2009, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Between 2007 and 2013, moreover, according to census data, the working-poor population has risen steadily statewide from 20.9 percent to 25.3 percent.
We should be working as quickly as possible to eliminate the condition known as “working poor.” For 40 years, worker productivity has increased significantly while wages have barely budged in a wide range of professions…. The demand for $15 now is not a handout, it is one step towards economic justice.
In the event of a veto, the campaign is looking toward the next planned standoff, at the polls in November 2017, when workers will pick a new governor and hopefully approve a veto-proof referendum for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. In the interim, the campaigners are pushing other labor reforms, including boosting the sub-minimum wage level currently earned by tipped workers, along with anti–wage theft measures, to further safeguard working poor families struggling with precarious service work. Until then, Powers says in a follow-up e-mail:
Localities can raise wages for workers as they did in Jersey City, County governments can take action as well. We expect our elected leaders to work for the working class year round. This organization intends to continue organizing to hold them accountable for that.
One case study for Christie’s economic vision (and Trump’s) is ground zero for casino capitalism, Atlantic City. The impoverished tourist town harbors 82 of the state’s wealthiest residents, whom Christie has coddled in his repeated attacks on the estate tax for the ultra-rich and rejection of proposals to tax millionaires. Meanwhile, the NJPP notes, the city’s finances teeter on bankruptcy, and more than 24,100 workers there are poor enough to qualify for the earned income tax credit.
Even $15 an hour will fail to alleviate hardship for many households bucking under the state’s heavy cost of living. A three-person family with two children would need an estimated $68,770 annually to live decently (roughly quadruple the full-time annual minimum-wage income of $17,430).
While the state has made some strides on family-friendly benefits—like municipal policies for paid sick days and statewide family leave insurance—the social safety net remains tattered. Women, for example, are both disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs and disproportionately hurt by the state’s so-called benefits “cliff,” according to Rutgers University researchers: Around the $22-per-hour wage level, working women lose eligibility for crucial supports like subsidized childcare and health insurance. They then face an absurd choice, “forced to turn down a pay-raise or a promotion in order to keep their work supports.” Yet just below this tier, “[m]ore than half of all single mothers raising children alone…lack adequate income.”
Even a union job brings no guarantee of security. Shortly after the wage bill passed, Atlantic City casino workers voted to authorize a strike at several gambling establishments, citing wages averaging less than $12 an hour, with minimal health benefits. (The lone casino holding out on contract negotiations as of July 1 was Trump’s Taj Mahal.)
Speaking with fellow union activists ahead of the strike date, Bally’s cocktail server Elaine Malloy talked about struggling to support a child in college on tipped wages. She hadn’t gotten a significant raise in years: “Yes, I do get tips, but I have to be able to survive on the generosity of my customers,” she said, while noting that her employer is even less generous. “I market for them, I serve beverages for them, I clean up for them, all on $8.99 an hour. You tell me who’s gonna do that for $8.99 an hour.”
Sadly, many workers would be willing to scrape that low. Soon, however, it may be against the law. Yet to really outlaw working poverty, New Jersey workers need comprehensive social policies like free childcare and expanded affordable housing opportunities. For now, they can start to make do with a wage at least worth working for, and maybe start working towards other priorities, like winning not just a fair day’s pay, but economic justice.