Employment in New Jersey
The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed became real through concrete acts of justice: feeding people, freeing them from various forms of bondage, embracing those excluded by the systems of his day, and calling his followers to a life of faithfulness to God (paraphrased from Luke 4:18-19). Let us heed God’s call and live out our faith by becoming advocates for workers in New Jersey.
In Genesis, work is to be the means through which basic needs might be met, as human beings “till and keep” the garden in which God has placed them (Genesis 2:15). Work is seen not as an end in itself, but as a means for sustaining humans and the rest of creation. Yet, often in economic systems workers are undercompensated for their hours of labor, creating an unjust economy of dehumanizing conditions and sinful systems. Injustice often deprives people of the fruits of their work (Proverbs 13:23), while others benefit instead.
The ELCA, in its 1999 Social Statement “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” agreed that through human decisions and actions, God is at work in economic life. Economic life is intended to be a means through which God’s purposes for humankind and creation are served. God intends for all humans to have access to food, housing, health care, and the opportunity for dignified work to acquire these basic needs.
God’s reign intersects earthly life, transforming us and how we view the systems of this world, shifting our perspective on economic life. Our faith in God provides a vantage point for critiquing systems of this world which fall short of what God intends for God’s children.
Here in New Jersey we have become comfortable talking about the “working poor.” These are two words that do not belong together. When people must work two or three jobs to earn enough money to manage the cost of living, we as people of faith must cry out for justice. Before this current economic downturn, it was estimated that nearly 40% of all NJ households struggled each month to make ends meet. (Learn more here)
Economic life in New Jersey advantages some while disadvantaging others. Racial disparities in hourly wages have not only persisted over the last four decades, but have actually expanded, as the wages for white workers have increased more rapidly than for Black and Latinx workers. (See full report here.) In addition, while the overall gender wage gap in New Jersey has narrowed since 1979, women continue to earn lower wages than men, and Black and Latinx women earn less than white women. Workers in frontline industries are more likely to have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line than the workforce overall.
The advantages of lifting people out of poverty extend far beyond the household, however. In lowering the poverty rate, we increase the tax base, boost consumer spending, and decrease need for social programs.
Farm work is one of the most dangerous and low-paying occupations in the United States. “Non-payment of wages, or really low wages…pesticides, vehicle safety, and workplace accidents” are some of the long-standing problems farmworkers face, according to Jessica Culley from Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), a nonprofit organization headquartered in New Jersey. COVID-19 has only made farm work riskier. Social distancing is nearly impossible. A majority of migrant farmworkers live in crowded camps on the farms, sharing bathrooms and dormitory-style sleeping quarters.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, New Jersey has between 4,000 and 14,000 agricultural workers depending on the time of year. If all of those workers were to get a wage hike to $15 an hour, it would translate to only a modest increase in consumer prices, according to calculations by UC Berkeley Economics professor Michael Reich (Read more here). But as you may recall, farm workers were carved out of the minimum wage increase that was passed into law last year.
WE CALL FOR:
The Department of Civil Rights to convene a task group to study the economic forces that keep the agricultural industry and its workers in New Jersey in distress. Specific attention should be paid to inter-state commerce practices, price supports for fruit and vegetable growers, and just labor practices for farm workers.
The Department of Labor to enforce protections so that workers who are at risk of workplace dangers can report violations without fear of retaliation.
Increased funding for the NJ State Migrant Education Program.
Changes to Medicaid regulations to make it possible for farm workers to be provided with greater access to health care, earned sick time, and other worker benefits.
The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the already challenging circumstances that many workers must navigate. This past week, Governor Murphy signed an Executive Order to protect vulnerable workers during this health emergency. This EO creates a new mechanism for addressing violations of public health and worker safety laws. It will create a 24-hour “worker rights protections” hotline, deputize COVID-19 safety liaisons to resolve COVID-19 disputes, require essential employers to provide all essential workers with notice of their pandemic protections, mandate training for essential workers and essential employers, and strengthen enforcement of pandemic protection violations.
But more support is needed for those who work so hard and continue to struggle. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a proven program that provides tax credits for low wage workers.
THIS PROGRAM SHOULD BE EXTENDED TO:
Provide eligibility to childless workers ages 18 to 24 years old (A838/S835),
Increase the credit amount from 40 percent to 50 percent of the federal credit over two years (in 2021 and 2022) for all recipients (A841/S836),
Increase the credit amount to 100 percent for all childless workers (A839/S765),
Enable qualifying relatives to be treated as qualifying children (A840/S764), and
Expand the EITC to immigrants who file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (A4229/S2194).
By reducing barriers to the EITC and increasing the credit amount, the program could be a stronger tool for addressing economic insecurity.
Currently the Dept of Labor is noting a labor shortage particularly in the restaurant portion of the industry; as many as 50,000 workers are needed to fill open positions. Some suggest that this is because of extended unemployment benefits, but this is not the whole picture. Many workers are not returning to their former restaurant jobs. Eighty percent of American restaurant workers lived in economic insecurity in the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic. In New Jersey tipped workers receive a subminimum wage of $4.13 per hour. Many restaurant workers do not have health insurance and often face unpredictable workplace schedules making earning a consistent income difficult. And because our labor market is characterized by occupational segregation, most of these workers are women and workers of color.
We know that in the seven states with one fair wage, including California, Oregon and Washington State, tipped workers receive higher take-home pay. Rates of poverty, wage theft and sexual harassment are all lower as well, and restaurants are thriving. Increasing the minimum wage for tipped workers in New Jersey, as well as advocating for other workers’ rights issues, such as paid sick leave, are how we can build sustainable systems that will sustain our livelihoods and wellbeing.
New Jersey Economic Security
United for Alice New Jersey Overview: https://www.unitedforalice.org/new-jersey
Earned Sick Leave FAQ from NJ.gov:
Farm Worker Issues
New Jersey Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers: Enumeration and Access to Healthcare Study:
Online discussion hosted by the Fair Farms Campaign, “Rebuilding Equity into our Local Food System”:
New York Times, “How You Get Your Berries: Migrant Workers Who Fear Virus, but Toil On”:
Bill No. 4404, “Farm Worker Epidemic Health and Safety Act”:
https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2020/Bills/A4500/4404_R1.PDF Passed senate, in AssemblyAppropriations.
New Jersey Policy Perspective Report on effects of COVID-19 on New Jersey workers:
“NJDOL Issues Unemployment Guidance As Work Reopens Amid COVID-19”:
"An Hour of Advocacy"
Interested in advocating for economic security in New Jersey? Join our monthly Zoom meeting by registering here.
The Employment Issue Table meets at 5:30 PM on the fourth Monday of every month.