Essex County residents earning minimum wage cite challenges, hopeful for wage hike

NEWARK — Money is tight for Travis Richardson, so when his basement recently flooded, he said his finances went into a tailspin.

He said he bargained with his landlord to delay $200 in rent so he could pay for cleanup from the flooding but still make ends meet.

“It was crazy, it was tough,” said Richardson, 35, a host at the IHOP restaurant in Newark where he earns the minimum wage.

“I work to pay bills,” the Newark resident said. “It’s a challenge living day to day.”

Today, Richardson multitasked at the entrance of the restaurant on Bergen Street, taking phone orders, seating patrons and manning the cash register.

Richardson says he’s considering going back to school for a degree, to open up more job options.

“That’s what I’m thinking about (because) I’ve gotta make more money,” he said. “I could progress in life.”

For Richardson, the prospect of increasing the minimum wage a dollar per hour symbolizes hope.

On Nov. 5, New Jerseyans will vote on whether to amend the state Constitution to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25, followed by automatic annual increases based on the Consumer Price Index.

Proponents say an increase would help employees improve their standard of living. Opponents say it would force businesses already operating on thin profit margins to raise prices and cut staff, creating an even worse situation for those on the bottom rung of the career ladder.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” said Michael Saltsman, research director at Employment Policies Institute, a business-backed think tank.

Raising the minimum wage, he said, “would be harmful to both the state’s employers and employees, and will hurt the least-skilled job seekers the most” in an economy where 26 percent of teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 already are unemployed.

As a teenager earning minimum wage, Jerel Waxter believes that his education will lead to a brighter future.

But boosting the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour would make his life easier now.

“That extra dollar will do a lot,” said Waxter, 19, who works as a cashier at the Pathmark in Newark.

The youngest of three children, Waxter says he lives with his mother who he helps support financially. He has money concerns — he has college loans to pay off and is trying to save up for a car so he doesn’t have to take the bus.

“I try not to get frustrated,” said Waxter, who credits the next-door New Community Family Resource Success Center with helping him land a job at Pathmark five months ago. “Life is not always easy.”

The East Orange teen says he works 22 hours a week at the supermarket and also attends classes at Essex County College, where he is a sophomore studying criminal justice. He wants to become a paralegal and sees a future in politics, perhaps as a city councilman.

He plans to make his voice heard by voting in favor of increasing the minimum wage in next month’s election.

“It gives you a little bit of hope that things might change,” Waxter said.
Original article

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