In a state with more millionaires than full-time teachers, the $5.15 minimum wage has become almost irrelevant.
Acting Gov. Richard Codey thinks he can change that.
In his first State of the State speech, set for Tuesday, Codey is expected to outline a plan to raise the minimum wage to roughly $7 an hour. The controversial move aligns Codey with advocates for the poor, who see his proposal sending ripples through the economy, boosting pay for not only tens of thousands of the lowest-paid workers but the hundreds of thousands just above them on the pay scale.
GOVERNOR'S AMBITIOUS SPEECH
Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, the nation's largest statewide employer association, also sees ripples. Only they are made of the pink slips that companies will issue to thin the ranks and keep labor costs constant.
It is a sharply divided argument over a figure that few legal workers in New Jersey actually earn.
Caught in the middle are people like Linnie Conley, who find that holding down a job isn't enough to save them from struggling, even during a time of economic growth.
Five days a week, Conley awakens before 5 a.m. to feed and change her infant grandson, whose mother is Conley's oldest daughter.
Then, before Conley's other daughter leaves for high school, where she's a senior on the honor roll, Conley is off to work, often before 7 a.m.
She catches a bus from Broad Street in downtown Newark to suburban Livingston, where she works as a part-time cashier at ShopRite. She earns $7.45 an hour.
Nearly 12 hours later, she returns home -- which these days is Apostles' House, a homeless shelter where she and her two daughters have shared one upstairs room since the summer.
"It's difficult. But it's better than being in the street," said Conley, who can still smile broadly as she talks about her life.
Advocates for the state's working poor say many of them take two-hour bus rides to work and are just one setback away from living on the street.
There are 11,000 workers in New Jersey who make $5.15 an hour, but campaigners for a higher minimum wage say its effect on the economy would help far more people in the state, including 64,000 with lower-paying jobs that are exempt from the rules. New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based think tank calling for a raise to $7.50, says such a move eventually would push up wages for 400,000 other workers earning up to $8.50 an hour -- a tenth of the state's work force.
As recently as 1992, New Jersey had the highest minimum wage in the nation, $5.05. It hasn't been raised since 1999, when the Legislature tied it to the federal $5.15 requirement.
Today, a dozen states have a higher minimum wage than the federal mandate. The New York Legislature acted last month to raise the minimum wage to $7.15 by 2007.
Raising the minimum wage is a priority for Codey -- whose first job, replacing candles at St. John's Church in Orange, paid $1 an hour -- because all New Jersey residents should have "a living wage," spokeswoman Kelley Heck said.
But because of the ripple effect it will have on pay structures, "it is a very, very costly item, " Kirschner said. Companies might hire fewer workers, and New Jersey could lose jobs to neighboring Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage is also $5.15, he said.
Another contention is that it won't help the pool of unskilled workers because an entry-level job that suddenly pays $7.50 is likely to attract teenagers from affluent suburbs who might otherwise snub the work.
Besides, critics say, the relationship between working families and the minimum wage is exaggerated.
Only about 15 percent of those earning the minimum wage nationwide are single parents supporting children, according to the Employment Policies Institute, a business-supported group, citing government data. The other 85 percent are teenagers living at home with their parents, or adults living alone, or adults living with a spouse who earns more than the minimum wage.
Since she graduated from high school in Georgia, Linnie Conley, 55, has worked jobs virtually nonstop: as a machinist fabricating pipes; an unskilled worker packing boxes; a cafeteria worker at a jail, and a security guard for a company that abruptly went out of business, which is how she lost her apartment and ended up in the homeless shelter.
In some ways, she says, her current 32-hour-a-week job is the best. The hours are predictable, the surroundings are pleasant and she's a member of a union. She expects to get medical benefits after two years on the job.
But the work still doesn't pay enough for suitable home in Newark, where a three-bedroom apartment can cost $1,200 per month, or to support her two daughters and new grandson. She earns less than half the state's average wage.
Lately she seems to be sliding backward financially. At the Essex County Youth Detention Center in Newark, she had been earning as much as $14 an hour with benefits; she earned $9 an hour working security.
"I spend my time looking for an apartment and looking for jobs," said Conley, who scours the newspapers and tries to schedule appointments on her days off. Her goal: a job that pays $10 an hour.
Then "I really could see a little way how to make it," said Conley.
Experts say a range of people -- unskilled factory workers, temporary workers, home health aides, restaurant workers and others -- make up the hidden underbelly of an economy that relies on the lowest-paid work force.
"It's very easy for employers to hold out," says Daryn Martin, a union organizer with District 1199J, which represents 11,000 hospital and nursing home workers in New Jersey and is trying to organize others into a union. "Even paying the minimum wage, they don't have to pay benefits and don't have to guarantee certain hours per week."
Elbia Garcia, an emigrant from Ecuador, said she recently earned the minimum wage in various factories in Newark, packaging goods. She got the jobs through a temporary agency that charged her $20 a week to ride in a van that took workers to the factories. The worst part, she said, was that she got few breaks and had to stand all day.
"It was not a good job, but I could not find anything else," said Garcia, who lives in an apartment in Bloomfield.
Eventually Garcia found work at a downtown coffee shop that pays $8 an hour and gives half an hour for lunch as well as periodic breaks. She feels fortunate.
Apostles' House, where Conley is among the working poor who found emergency shelter, once housed only welfare recipients, said Sandy Accomando, chief executive officer of the group, which was founded by a group of Episcopal churches 20 years ago.
It is located on Grant Street, in a row of townhouses across from the elevated portion of Route 280.
"You ride down the street and you see Wendy's and McDonald's are hiring," said Accomando, who is also chairman of the New Jersey Alliance for the Homeless. "Low-wage jobs are available but they can't sustain a family, which is why people are coming to my shelter."
Conley pays a percentage of her salary, equal to $209 a month, to stay there.
JOB AFTER JOB
For Conley, downtown Newark is a long way from Cedar Springs, a small town in the southwestern corner of Georgia where she grew up. She was born on a farm, one of 10 kids, including eight older brothers. After graduating from high school, she moved to New Jersey.
She spent more than eight years as a skilled machinist at Standard Nipple in Garwood. She later took a job at a Hillside packaging company. Then she found the position at the county jail cafeteria. She would have stayed longer than five years but it was too depressing, she said.
The security job was okay. She stood in a booth outside a chemical company in Irvington. But after two years, the company abruptly closed its doors. She had to dig into her savings to pay the rent.
She was eventually evicted from her three-bedroom apartment and moved in with a friend.
Finally, late one day in August, her two daughters in tow, she showed up at Apostles' House.
There she faces one of the biggest problems for many low-wage workers: getting to work. Because many jobs are in the suburbs, workers must rely on public transportation.
Conley allows almost two hours for the nine-mile trip on two buses to the Livingston ShopRite. On Sundays and holidays, she takes three buses.
If she gets to work ahead of schedule, she can have breakfast in the store's huge fresh-food market. Otherwise she works for three hours and then grabs breakfast during a 15-minute break.
When it's time to go home, she waits outside in the bus shelter and watches buses, filled with people coming from the Livingston Mall, drive by without stopping. She will wait 90 minutes or more for a bus home. A monthly bus card costs $71, more than a day's pay.
Her goal these days is to keep her family together -- Sharon, 21, Lisa, 17, and Sharon's baby -- and save up the money needed to get an apartment, typically at least one month's rent and the equivalent of a month and a half rent for a security deposit. She would like a three-bedroom apartment but fears she will have to settle for less.
Adding to her frustration, she has discovered moving out of the shelter can be difficult for working people. Those on welfare routinely get special rental assistance from the government. She was told the only way she could qualify was to quit her job.
Lisa, an honor student at Weequahic High School, seems to be able to block out most of the distractions with her music and headphones. She also tries to do as much of her homework at school.
"I do what I set my mind to," she said. "But I would like my own house so I could shut the door."
She hopes to attend college next year, with help from a state scholarship of $4,000 over four years. She wants to be a veterinarian.
One bright spot for Lisa is a school trip to France with her French class. Students have raised money and the school board is chipping in, Conley said. She only had to pay $100 for the passport.
"I was not going to take away her one and only chance to see Paris," she said.
Jeff Whelan contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 The Star-Ledger