Imagine yourself a minimum-wage worker.
You earn $7.25 an hour. You work full-time, eight hours a day, maybe flipping burgers, maybe scanning groceries, maybe taking tickets at a movie theater. You make $290 a week, $15,080 a year.
You’re renting an apartment in Morris or Somerset counties, clearly, you can’t afford to buy a home. Rent is $1,233 a month.
After you pay that rent–hopefully it includes utilities–you’ve got $284 to spend. For the entire year.
It’s probably best to take a job in food service, where you might be able to snatch a handful of fries or fistful of popcorn for free, because the $5.40 you have left over each week won’t even buy one day’s worth of healthy meals.
Given all this, how is it possible that any Assembly member could have voted last Thursday against raising New Jersey’s minimum wage-the same as the federal minimum-to $8.50: $1.25 more an hour, $50 more a week, $2,600 more a year.
Don’t want to hurt those job creators! Businesses will shut down or flee for other states! This will stop New Jersey’s so-called “comeback!” The minimum wage shouldn’t be an entitlement program!
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) put his finger on it when he said it all boils down to political philosophy. The Assembly’s vote was yet another example of New Jersey’s own local version of the political polarization that has deadlocked Congress.
Every Republican, including all those representing Morris County, voted against the bill. All but two Democrats voted for it–one opposed it, one didn’t vote-and so it passed, but not by a veto-proof majority.
The Democrats made impassioned arguments about helping people.
The Republicans made impassioned arguments about hurting businesses.
Both sides tossed out numbers, percents and real stories to support their side. And then there was Assemblyman Michael P. Carroll (R-Morris) re-delivering a speech he made in 2005 that combined the movie "Back to the Future" and his own experiences while working, with his wife-to-be, at the Cedar Knolls McDonald’s in 1978.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), and sponsor of the bill, cited a lot of statistics in making her case: 280,000 children in New Jersey have at least one parent who earns less than $8.50 an hour; 39 percent of those earning the minimum wage have at least some college; 55 percent are women and 86 percent of those are over age 20.
Assemblyman Christopher Brown (R-Burlington) tossed out his own numbers, which actually helped make Oliver’s case: 42 percent of minimum wage workers are age 21 and under, meaning more than half are post-college age, and a third are 45 and older.
Yes, a third of those people making minimum wage are middle age or senior citizens.
Two Middlesex County Democrats put it another way: John Wisniewski pointed out that a full-time minimum wage worker today currently make less than a third of the $49,000 salary state lawmakers receive for their part-time service – most have other “real” jobs. Diegnan noted the $290 weekly minimum wage is less than his attorney colleagues’ average hourly billable amount.
Oliver said 18 states with 43 percent of the nation’s workforce have set laws exceeding the federal minimum wage, with Washington’s the highest at $9.04 an hour. Unquestionably it is more expensive to live in New Jersey than most of the rest of the nation.
She also said that when Washington and seven other states raised their minimum wage, unemployment didn’t rise, but it fell.
It’s hard to argue with such statements, but argue the Republicans did.
Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Monmouth) made the most reasonable argument against the move, saying that putting it into effect July 1 does not give businesses enough time to prepare. That’s the kind of debate lawmakers should have had.
Perhaps if the parties were not so polarized, there would have been some compromise on that date, or on the question of tying future increases to inflation, or perhaps on not increasing the minimum for anyone still in high school.
None of those kinds of compromises would satisfy a Michael Carroll, but maybe they would have swayed a Caroline Casagrade, or Assemblyman Matthew Milam (D-Cape May) and the only Democrat who voted against the bill?
We’ll never know, because, sadly, that’s not the kind of political discourse we have today.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.
This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris, Somerset and Sussex counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.