By Bill Mooney
TRENTON - For Regina Thompson-Jenkins, the Nov. 5 vote on increasing New Jersey’s minimum wage is more than about mere dollars and cents.
“For parents who are earning minimum wage, struggling to support their families, it rubs off on their children. They are worried about whether they will have dinner at night, will their lights be turned off. Poverty begets violence,’’ said the woman whose son Tre-Lane was fatally shot last Sept. 22. “Working for minimum wage is working for near poverty wages. Violence occurs because of it.”
A coalition of state lawmakers, mayors, labor leaders, educators and other activists came together Monday to champion the upcoming referendum to hike the $7.25 minimum wage by $1.
But it was working women such as Thompson-Jenkins, those who are on the front lines of fending off poverty and trying to pay monthly bills, who gave voice to the issue from the perspective of low-wage earners.
For example, Jackie Frazier recalled how difficult it was to pay bills when she earned minimum wage at a supermarket. “It’s disturbing that employers think we earn too much,’’ she said during a wide-ranging press conference at the Statehouse held on the 93rd anniversary of the signing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
Supporters of the minimum wage hike said not enough voters are even aware such a question is on the ballot, and it would be a mistake to assume it automatically will pass.
Backers issued warnings that its opponents will use scare tactics that a hike in the minimum wage will lead to fewer workers and higher prices.
Jennifer Armiger, president of NOW of New Jersey, said that with so many companies in New Jersey registering record profits in the recession’s aftermath it is a red herring for employers to talk about increasing prices to consumers.
And James Harris, president of the NAACP-NJ, said “most companies are not going to lay people off. If you give an increase of $1 it is going to come right back into the economy,”
Mary Gatta, of Wider Opportunities for Women, said that for many working women a $1 increase would enable to them cover 90 percent of their utility costs per month, or 60 percent of their monthly health care costs.
The advocates said that a higher minimum wage – which they said is still not a living wage – is linked to better health care, improved education, an accelerated economy, and more equality overall.
Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill in January that would have hiked the minimum wage by $1.25, to $8.50, and linked increases to the cost of living index. Instead, he offered a compromise on a $1 increases phased in over three years.
Trenton Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson said that if that compromise had been in effect, the increase for the first year alone would have been wiped out by inflation.
The advocates for hiking the wage pointed out that 60 percent of the minimum wage-earners in New Jersey are women, many of them single mothers taking in barely $15,000 a year before taxes.
Gubernatorial candidate Sen. Barbara Buono was on hand and said “More and more women are heads of households. A disproportionate number of women, as a result of this governor’s misplaced priorities, are being denied.”
“Assuming you don’t get sick, and assuming your kids don’t get sick, you are still $4,500 short of the federal poverty line,” she said. Such minimum-wage earners, she said, “have to resort to food stamps, and are waking up in that cold sweat wondering how you are going to pay your bills.”
Among the more than two dozen speakers were Sen. Linda Greenstein and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach and Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, Lieutenant Governor candidate Milly Silva of SEIU Local 1199, and Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“If we don’t fight this could go down very easily,” Sweeney said in warning the supporters not to become complacent.