By. Eunice Lee and Mike Frassinelli
Living on minimum wage in New Jersey can mean choosing between eating and paying bills, still living with your family when you are in your 30s or begging the landlord to delay the rent.
It can lead to that uneasy feeling of standing at an ATM and wondering whether money — or an embarrassing note saying there are insufficient funds — will be spit out.
It can mean giving up any hope of going on vacation — or even just seeing a movie or visiting a relative in another state.
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.
Away from the political and philosophical discussions, The Star-Ledger spoke with minimum-wage workers from ages 19 to 66 about what it’s like to live on $7.25 an hour.
For Bedminster resident Susan Lefkowitz, living on the minimum wage is a juggling act that requires her at times to decide whether to pay a bill or buy food.
“You always are juggling, constantly juggling,” said Lefkowitz, 66. “One month, you’re late on one bill. Another month, you’re late on another.”
Lefkowitz said she has been working as a salesperson for the last few months at a T.J. Maxx, the latest in a series of retail jobs she’s held since her business collapsed in the wake of the recession.
Lefkowitz, whose business involved promoting alternative health care treatments, said she once earned between $85,000 and $95,000 per year. But when the recession hit, she lost clients and ultimately shut down the business.
Lefkowitz said she then began working in retail, but has been forced to seek new retail jobs because companies kept cutting her hours.
As a minimum wage earner, Lefkowitz, who continues to pay a mortgage, said she has had to cut back on “going away, going out to eat dinner, going to a movie.” She said she hasn’t been able to afford going on vacation, not even a long weekend away.
Living on the minimum wage “keeps people at poverty levels,” Lefkowitz said.
Money is tight for Travis Richardson, so when his basement recently flooded, his finances went into a tailspin, he said.
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.
“I work to pay bills,” said the 35-year-old Newark resident, a host at the IHOP restaurant in Newark. “It’s a challenge living day to day.”
Richardson says he’s considering going back to school 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 by a dollar per hour symbolizes hope.
“It might seem insignificant. It helps a lot,” he said. “You see the price of a gallon of milk right now?”
If he saves up enough money, he plans to visit his younger sister, Tina, in North Carolina. He hasn’t seen her in years.
As a teenager earning minimum wage, Jerel Waxter believes his education will lead to a brighter future.
But boosting the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour would make his life easier now.
“That extra dollar will do a lot,” said Waxter, 19, 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 New Community Family Resource Success Center with helping him land a job at Pathmark five months ago. “Life is not always easy.”
When Mia Powell moved from North Carolina to New Jersey two years ago, she had no idea how high the cost-of-living increase would be, let alone how difficult it would be to get by on just her minimum-wage paychecks.
“Everything here is so expensive,” the 23-year-old Rahway resident said. “I never knew it would cost $15 to take a cab just down the street to the next town.”
Powell works for minimum wage at a Taco Bell in Roselle where she makes between $200 and $300 every two weeks, depending on how many hours the restaurant can offer, but plans to start school at Stanford-Brown College this year to get a degree in medical billing and coding, a decision she said was propelled by her minimum wage jobs.
In the meantime, Powell says she wishes she could enjoy her mid-20s more, going out on weekends and making some friends in her new home state. But the money she earns forces her to choose between fun and a phone bill.
“I do go out sometimes, but then I have to make it through the week,” she said. “So you gotta (have fun) on a budget.”