$15 an Hour? New Jersey Minimum-Wage Workers Say It’s About Time

By Nate Schweber


Jan. 23, 2019

Unique Gardner, a mother of six and assistant manager at a Family Dollar store in Trenton, N.J., sometimes works double shifts to pay the rent.


TRENTON — Every weekday, from the time when the sun starts to sink over the bridge that reads “Trenton Makes The World Takes” until long after the bustling downtown of New Jersey’s capital city has grown dark and empty, Rosy Herera scrubs floors, shines sinks and polishes sticky stains off conference tables. She is a custodian and a minimum wage worker.

When Ms. Herera, 50, who provides for four children and two grandchildren, learned last week that lawmakers had agreed to gradually raise the wage from the current rate of $8.85 to $15 by 2024, she smiled broadly and looked up while clasping her hands in prayer.

“Oh, thank you,” she said outside her workplace on East Front Street. “It’s been too much work, not enough money.”

In the fry kitchens, discount stores, trash collection sites and parking garages of this city, where everyday life can feel distant from government buildings where more affluent people make the state’s laws, news of the minimum wage increase was greeted less with cries of euphoria than sighs of relief.

“I’m barely making it,” said Unique Gardner, 29, a mother of six who is an assistant manager at the Family Dollar on East State Street. “This, this will bring me closer. I’m grateful for it.”

Ms. Gardner, who said she started at minimum wage a year ago, now earns $10 an hour, which would be the state minimum starting July 1, under an agreement reached Thursday by Gov. Philip D. Murphy and legislative leaders. Starting in January 2020, the minimum wage would rise to $11; from there, it would increase a dollar a year until it hits $15. With Democrats in control of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature, the proposal is certain to pass.

In 2013, after former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a minimum-wage increase, voters robustly approved a constitutional amendment raising the wage by $1 from $7.25 to $8.25. Since then, it has risen by 60 cents. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, and New Jersey’s new plan puts it at the vanguard among states lifting the wage floor, along with California, New York and Massachusetts.

Ms. Gardner, the sole breadwinner in her house, often works double shifts to make her $825 monthly rent. She said the promise of a raise allows her to dream: of shopping for her children somewhere besides where she works, of buying a car so she doesn’t have to carry sacks of clothes to the laundromat, of one day, maybe, owning a home.

Andre Kirk, 41, who works full time as a booth attendant in a parking garage, cannot wait to earn $10 an hour. The apartment in town he shares with his 7-year-old son, Markis, and the boy’s mother costs $980 a month. When his raise comes, he plans to lavish it on Markis, taking him bowling and to the movies and ordering him his favorite pineapple pizza.

“It’s good for my boy,” he said. “It’s about time.”

At the McDonald’s in the train station, a minimum-wage earner, Zach David, said in between filling milkshakes and French fry orders that he will invest his higher paychecks in his future.

“I like to save for something I need, like a house, a car, feed my kids if I have some,” said Mr. David, 24, who is paying his way through school to be an HVAC repairman. “I’m long-term; I’m not one of these sit-here-and-buy-sneakers guys.”

Sandy Wang, 54, the manager of busy Po Po No. 1 Chinese restaurant, said that she expected to have to increase her prices slightly if her restaurant is forced to pay its workers more. No worries, she said, because she expects Trentonians to use some of the extra dollars in their pockets to buy food.

“Then people come in and spend money,” she said dunking a basket into a fryer. “It’s O.K. to me.”

Wrestling dumpsters full of garbage from office buildings, Roni Rodas, who works with Ms. Herera and like her, comes from Guatemala, said in Spanish that the minimum wage jump would be such a boon for him he almost could not believe it. The $8.60 an hour he made during all of 2018 — “demasiado poquito,” too little, he said — barely paid for a room in a $1,200-per-month four-bedroom house that he shares with three other men. Standing beside Ms. Herera, who rents a $1,500-per-month house for her family of seven, he said with his raise he would make sure his rent is paid, and then buy food, so he has enough to eat.

“Not a lot of money he have now,” said Ms. Herera, who was wearing Mr. Rodas’s jacket after he saw her shivering and gave it to her.

Najah Jones, 20, a clerk at the Family Dollar store, said she would pay down her credit card debt to rebuild her credit. Her mother, she said, fixed her credit status and was able to lease a pretzel stand to manage inside a Walmart. Ms. Jones said she wanted to emulate her and become something she dreams of being: a boss.

She said she is in favor of the wage proposal but wished lawmakers would speed up the rollout. “Of course, it’s a good idea,” she said, making change for a man buying towels. “They should make it $15 now.”

But the proposed new law was not met with universal praise. Celoi Carr, 18, a barista at Starbucks who makes $10 an hour, said she saw it as a demotion.

“I would go from making a little above minimum wage to minimum wage,” she said.

Joseph Festa, 83, a barber who has worked all his life in Trenton, said that if minimum-wage earners want to make more money, they should either get better at their jobs or get a second job.

“You want a crop, you got to plant that seed,” he said.

From the corner of the barbershop, a customer who said he had worked minimum wage jobs shook his head.

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