Mark Reeves works as a full-time guard for a Jersey City-based company that provides security services for residential and office buildings. But his $9.50 an hour wage, he said, forced him to move out of the Jersey City apartment he shared with a roommate. He now lives in aroom at the Bayonne YMCA.
“The only reason I’m there is I can’t afford to have an apartment,” Reeves said. “In Jersey City, a studio will run you about $700 and I don’t make it.”
Reeves was among dozens of Jersey City security workers who attended the City Council meeting last Wednesday to show support for a proposed measure that would raise wages for several categories of workers, including those in the security industry.
In an interview with The Reporter, Reeves recounted the difficulties of being a low-wage employee living in an expensive city.
“Once I get through paying rent, and take out money for my transportation, and pay my cell phone bill, that’s it,” Reeves stated. “I can’t afford to buy groceries.”
‘I can’t afford to buy groceries.’ – Mark Reeves
And he isn’t the only one struggling to make ends meet. Of the other employees who also work at the residential building where Reeves is assigned, two co-workers live with their parents and a third works two full-time jobs to make ends meet.
The company Reeves works for, he said, offers health benefits. But few of his co-workers are able to afford the required employee contribution to the health plan and therefore choose to go without coverage.
“Nobody on my site has it. They can’t afford it.”
Others who attended the May 9 meeting told similar stories to the local media and said they hope these stories will encourage members of the council to introduce and pass a proposed law that has become known as the “living wage” ordinance.
Last week, however, that ordinance faced several obstacles and was ultimately withdrawn by its two co-sponsors, Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop and At-Large Councilman Rolando Lavarro Jr. Days before the ordinance was to be introduced before the governing body, several other members of the council said the measure, as currently drafted, lacked specificity and expressed doubts that it could be enforced.
Fulop and Lavarro now hope to revise the language of the ordinance in time for it to be introduced at the May 23 council meeting.
Under the Fulop-Lavarro proposal, vendors in office buildings owned or leased by the city, or which receive $1 million in economic development subsidies from the city, would be required to pay contracted workers the prevailing wages for these jobs as set by the New Jersey Department of Labor. If passed, the law would primarily apply to security, custodial, clerical, and food service workers.
According to the councilmen and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which helped draft the legislation, in Hudson County the current prevailing wage for janitors is $15.70 an hour. Security officers would be paid at a level that is equal to at least 150 percent of the federal minimum wage, according to the latest version of the ordinance. Currently the federal minimum wage is $7.25, so that means security workers would be paid at least $10.87 under the ordinance. State prevailing wage standards also include health benefits and vacation time. The ordinance would further guarantee that clerical and food service workers – the lowest level of city contracted employees – receive at least $10.50 an hour.
The portion of the ordinance that pertains to developments that receive $1 million or more in city subsidies would only apply to new projects that have yet to be approved by the city. Also, the law would only apply to developments that either have more than 100 residential units or more than 100,000 square feet.
Enforcement a concern
Fulop and Lavarro’s colleagues on the council said they supported the intent of the ordinance. But they said the version presented last week was unworkable and would be difficult to enforce – a sign that the legislation was not likely to get the support it needed to be formally introduced last Wednesday.
Members of Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy’s administration expressed similar concerns about the wording of the measure.
One concern centered around the $1 million city subsidy threshold, which would apply to development projects that receive local tax abatements.
At the council’s May 7 caucus meeting, Corporation Counsel William Matsikoudis pointed out that since an abatement is a tax break, and not a grant, measuring the specific dollar value of the abatement isn’t always easily ascertainable.
Ward A Councilman Michael Sottolano asked whether the law would apply to tenants who lease space in developments that received abatements. When told that the law would apply to these tenants, he expressed doubts about enforcement.
Sottolano gave the example of an office building. If the developer of the office building received an abatement valued at $1 million or more, then leased the office space to several companies, those companies would be required to pay their contracted workers the living wage rates set by the city law.
“How do you plan to enforce that?” Sottolano asked at the caucus meeting.
Healy’s Chief of Staff, Rosemary McFadden, expressed similar concerns about enforcement.
At-Large City Councilwoman Viola Richardson thought it was problematic for workers to get accustomed to a certain hourly wage – then see their hourly pay rate drop once the abatement period ended.
Fulop had hoped to revise the language of the ordinance in time for the May 9 council meeting. That apparently did not happen and Fulop and Lavarro decided to withdraw the ordinance. They now plan to have it revised in time for the City Council meeting next week.
‘Times are tough’
Undeterred by the measure’s withdrawal, dozens of security workers employed with Jersey City companies attended the meeting to support the ordinance. Some city residents voiced their support for the measure as well.
Debate on the Fulop-Lavarro ordinance also coincided with a statewide initiative by the SEIU to raise wages and benefits for security workers. Prior to the council meeting SEIU held two rallies in downtown Jersey City, including one outside City Hall.
Like Mark Reeves, Johnathan Lacewell, another security worker, came out to support the legislation.
“Everybody is happy to have a job. But times are tough. We’re just making enough to meet the bills. Sometimes, not even enough to pay your bills. Sometimes you got to hold off paying one thing so can pay something else,” said Lacewell, who works at the courthouse on Summit Avenue. “After you’re done paying for everything, you’re left with almost nothing. And yet, our employers want us to put out quality work.”
The father of a nine-year-old daughter, Lacewell said he earns $10.50 an hour.
West Side resident Adam Albanese encouraged the council to pass the ordinance.
“A person employed full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour makes $15,080 a year, which is $3,500 below the federal poverty level for a family of three,” he said. “To put things in perspective, the yearly cost of living in Jersey City for a family of two adults and two children has been estimated at $55,440, more than three times that amount. Even if we were to focus only on an individual, the Poverty in America Living Wage Calculator estimates that for a single adult with no children in Jersey City the hourly pay wage would have to be $11.05 to be considered a living wage… with more and more New Jersey families sinking into poverty, the need to provide ways out of the hole and into security is great. Jersey City should join the scores of other cities that have raised the income floor for city-contracted employees to living wage rates.”
If the Fulop-Lavarro living wage ordinance is successfully introduced next Wednesday, there will be a public hearing on the proposal on Wednesday, June 13 at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 280 Grove St.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.