Natividad Souffront and her partner are responsible for cleaning City Hall in Jersey City, from the basement to the attic. She won’t say how much she makes, but admits that it hardly covers the basics.
“Oh, it’s a too much job, every day. It’s heavy job,” she said. “Vacuum cleaner, dusting, clean the bathroom, take out the garbage, everything. It’s too much job.”
Souffront and other low-wage workers are the target of the city’s new living wage ordinance, which the city council approved this week. It sets a new minimum wage — 150 percent of the federal minimum wage. For workers like Souffront, it’ll mean a 38 cents an hour salary increase, plus an additional $3.38 an hour as a subsidy to cover health and other benefits. Councilman Rolando Lavarro, Jr. is a co-sponsor of the measure. He says a living wage means more than just a minimum wage.
“Even if they’re working at an hourly wage, most of them end up — for 40 hours a week, full time — they end up with less than $22,000 a year, so for a family with a child or two even, it puts you below the federal guidelines for poverty,” he said.
The ordinance covers maintenance, security and some clerical personnel at City Hall. But it also includes workers at other city owned buildings and privately owned buildings that receive city subsidies like tax abatements.
But not everyone supported the ordinance. Councilman Michael Sottolano voted against it. He says he supports the raises, but says that the city should not get involved in agreements between workers and private contractors.
“The other parts of the bill, where we get into sick time, vacation time, medical benefits,” he said. “I think it’s an intrusion on the collective bargaining system, which is something between employer and employee, union representatives and the employees.”
The ordinance applies to union and non-union workers alike, but it bases the salaries and the cost of benefits on standards set by collective bargaining agreements in the region. Councilman Lavarro says city unions support the measure as a way to bring pay equity for low-wage workers.
We reached out to Livinus Mbamara, who owns Chuck’s Cleaning Service, in Belleville. They provide cleaning services for city hall and other municipal buildings. He says he’s taking a wait and see attitude.
“We support workers making more money because the work they do is very difficult. It’s not easy, but if we have to pay them more money, then we have to pass the cost on to the city,” he said in a statement. “How much that is going to be, I don’t know right now.”
The sponsors say they don’t think the ordinance will hurt the city’s ability to attract private contractors, and say companies that do business with the city or benefit from tax abatements should do their share to keep their employees from falling below the poverty line.
David Cruz reports from Jersey City.