A bill in the works to boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour has some seasonal shore businesses worried.
“It’s definitely going to negatively impact us,” said Chris Connelly, manager of Ripley’s Believe it or Not! on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. “We would have to raise the price of a ticket.”
Proponents of increasing the minimum wage contend it would boost spending in local economies and take pressure off state and federal assistance programs. Opponents say it would increase service costs for seasonal Jersey Shore businesses that rely heavily on three months of summer tourism.
By the end of the year, Gov. Phil Murphy said he wants lawmakers to send him a bill that would gradually boost the minimum wage from the current $8.60 an hour to $15 over a series of years. New Jersey’s minimum wage is adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index — a plan approved by voters in 2013 after then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a hike.
The quirky Ripley’s museum has about 12 employees year-round, most of whom Connelly said are young students paid $10 an hour.
“When we hire a 16-year-old for their first summer job, they live with their parents, they go to high school. They don’t need a living wage,” Connelly said.
In Cape May County, mom-and-pop shops are wary, too.
Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, said she expects businesses to cut back hours, automate positions and eliminate jobs as a result of increased labor costs.
The organization represents more than 800 businesses and more than 20,000 workers in the tourism industry. Many run on a narrow profit margin, she said, and would have to bump the pay for more experienced employees as well as minimum wage earners.
The chamber is urging the Legislature to carve out exemptions for seasonal and student workers from the minimum wage hike. In 2014, Cape May raised the price of weekly beach tags from $15 to $18, citing a $1 state-mandated minimum wage increase the year prior that affected some municipal employees.
“We are dependent on a seasonal, tourism-based economy,” Clark said. “This would have a very extreme impact on us.”
Local lawmakers, including state Sen. Chris Brown, Sen. Jeff Van Drew and Assemblymen Vincent Mazzeo and John Armato, are trying to get exemptions into the final bill for seasonal workers and farmers.
Senate President Steve Sweeney has expressed support for such proposals in the past. Murphy does not.
“I see the benefit of having carve-outs in place for our farmers and other seasonal employers,” Armato, D-Atlantic, said in a statement. He wants the bill to allow small businesses to implement the $15 minimum wage at a slower rate than large ones.
Others welcome a raise for all workers at the shore, where the cost of living is among the highest in the country.
A minimum wage increase is long overdue in New Jersey, said Ellen Mutari, a Stockton University economics professor. She cited a University of California, Berkeley study that found in Seattle, where the city passed a gradual $15 minimum wage three years ago, workers saw higher incomes with little reduction in employment.
To lessen the impact on shore businesses, she said, legislators be looking to Seattle. The city has two implementation tracks for large and small companies. Smaller operations are given more time to adjust to the changes.
“If New Jersey workers face one of the highest costs of living in the country,” she said, “then they need to be a part of this movement.”
Last year, New Jersey was the seventh most expensive rental market in the country, a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found. In Atlantic County, workers would need to make $19.04 an hour to make ends meet, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think tank.
Census data show more than 30,000 people in the county are employed in the food-service and recreation industry, where workers often rely on tips and regular hours.
Terrie Merlino, manager at Atlantic City’s Pic-a-Lilli Pub off the Boardwalk on Tennessee Avenue, said Thursday she hopes the bill passes.
The bar employs about eight bartenders and waitresses in the winter. Some who rely on tips, she said, struggle to afford rent and other necessities. She doesn’t expect Pic-a-Lilli to suffer from higher labor costs.
“I think people are going be able to spend more here,” Merlino said.
Some small shop owners along the Boardwalk don’t expect to be impacted.
Ray Khan, owner of Boardwalk Gifts, said he and his wife run the store with no employees. That’s the case for many of the neighboring shops.
“I don’t really have any employees. ... When I need help, I call my daughter,” Khan said. “In that case, we wouldn’t have any problems.”