First published in The Record, Feb. 8, 2019
At $15 an hour, minimum wage leaves the poorest behind
It was dark when we drove the sandy road lined with naked blueberry bushes. We stopped before a white concrete building, in a wide spot in the road surrounded by the carcasses of dead pickup trucks leaning sideways on half-deflated tires.
From the dark, a face emerged.
“Mucho gusto,” said the man.
Nice to meet you. He smiled. His first name is Cruz, he said, and he invited us to follow him. Cruz walked across the sand, climbed a wobbly stoop made of rocks, and opened the door to the concrete building, his home for the last dozen years.
Inside was a maze. Cruz walked a narrow hallway, its walls formed by bedsheets strung from the ceiling. The sheets sagged in the middle, and each sag offered a view into a different improvised bedroom. On the right, a man lay on his bed watching a flat-screen television; to the left another man played a video game on his phone. Each sheet enclosed enough space for a bed and nothing more.
Cruz turned down another hallway, pulled aside a gray blanket, and welcomed us into his room. It was nicer than the others, with three dressers, an Apple computer and a mini fridge. On a shelf above his bed stood a row of Mickey Mouse figurines, matching the face of Mickey tattooed across the broad muscles of Cruz’s right forearm.
These are the luxuries that 12 years of work for nearly minimum wage buys a person in New Jersey.
“I feel impotent. I feel powerless,” said Cruz, 28, who immigrated without documents from his home in Mexico City in 2007. “This isn’t a dignified way to live.”
Cruz left Mexico because his job in a small factory paid $30 a week. When he started pruning blueberry and cranberry bushes on this farm in the New Jersey Pine Barrens he got a raise, to $7.14 an hour. Today he makes $9, which is 15 cents above the state’s minimum wage.
Every two weeks the government takes state and federal income taxes, workers' comp, Social Security and Medicare taxes from his paycheck. Cruz will never see that money again, because he is here illegally and cannot use those services.
“I came to get out of poverty,” he said. “And I pay taxes.”
This week, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Cruz believed he would benefit. Maybe, in four or five years, he could save enough money and move back home to Mexico.
Then he learned the politicians of this state had taken his employer’s side.
“I really like to do farm work. I feel moments of satisfaction when the owner tells me I’m doing a good job,” Cruz said. “In the back of my mind I wonder, well, if I’m doing so well, why don’t you pay me more?”
Of details and devils
On Monday, Murphy signed the minimum wage law amid a boisterous political rally at a union hall in Elizabeth. The governor sat at a table draped in blue bunting. He removed fat blue pens from a glass-topped box and signed the law. When he was done he smiled broadly and handed the pens to the politicians standing around him, as if each pen were a miniature trophy.
“It is a great day to make some history for New Jersey’s working families,” Murphy said, “and that’s just what we’re gonna do.”
Sometimes making history takes a while. Sometimes a politician must sit at a fancy table. He must write his name with commemorative pens and smile for the journalists and the cheering workers and the other politicians, who made him look like a fool. He must do it because that’s what it takes to dress up defeat and make it look like victory.
“Legislation is always like making sausage,” said Kevin Brown, state director for the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ, which lobbied for the wage increase.
As a candidate for governor, Murphy promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 for all workers, immediately. While unions hold significant sway over Democrats in the Legislature, led by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, they also owe some of their power to business lobbyists like Michele N. Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.
Her group lobbied to slow and weaken the wage increase.
So Sweeney and Coughlin stalled. After a year, Murphy agreed to a watered-down version that increases the hourly wage for most workers to $10 on July 1. Eventually they will reach $15, but not for five years. The top wage doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2024.
The delay will cost hundreds of thousands of poor people money they don’t have. If the prices of milk and bread rise over the next five years as they have for the last five, minimum wage workers will lose 30 percent of their raise to inflation.
“How do you live on $15 an hour? You don’t,” Brown said. “Fifteen dollars is still poverty.”
Still. It’s been so long since low-wage workers got a raise at all, many are happy for whatever scraps they get.
“This means I can stop getting the little half gallon of milk. I can buy the gallon,” said Leslie Hall, who makes $11.90 an hour running an elementary school kitchen in Trenton for the Aramark food service company. “This means I don’t have to buy six eggs at a time. I can buy the whole dozen.”
Other workers must wait even longer. Under pressure from the state’s business lobbyists, the politicians agreed to make a special exception for seasonal workers, people who work for tips, workers for companies with fewer than six employees, and farm workers like Cruz.
Many of these people won’t reach $15 an hour until Jan. 1, 2026.
And farm workers such as Cruz might never reach $15 under the bill. After increases for several years to $12.50, the state agriculture secretary and labor commissioner are supposed to meet in 2024 to decide how much further increases would go beyond raises tied to inflation.
“What?” Cruz said this week when he learned the details. “Damn! That’s unfair.”
Cruz sat on his squishy bed in the back of the crowded bunkhouse. Last Friday the temperature reached 17 degrees. Cruz spent the day outside, pruning blueberry bushes. Next week the forecast calls for snow and rain. He works fewer hours when it’s wet, which means he makes less money. He’d like to move out of the bunkhouse, maybe rent an apartment. He’d like to get the cavity in his tooth fixed. He hasn’t seen his mother or his sister in Mexico City for 12 years. Eventually he’d like to save up enough money to move back home.
Cruz knew about the governor’s press conference. He thought it meant change was coming soon. Then he learned that he will remain stuck in the bunkhouse. And this is where he will stay.
“I don’t know who’s in charge,” he said. “But if they would come here and spend 10 hours working and picking blueberries, I think they would change their minds.”