John Holub has a different perspective on retail business now than when he was a teenager. His first job was at a men’s store in Summit, where he worked as a stockboy and a cashier. Today he is a lobbyist on behalf of the state’s retail sector, representing the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association in Trenton.
The career move was a wise one, for today, cashiers make an average of $9.82 an hour, according to the bureau of labor statistics. One of Holub’s priorities, as a representative of employers, is to block laws that would increase minimum wage above that level, or require paid sick leave for employees.
His group unsuccessfully fought against a 2013 state constitutional amendment that raised minimum wage to $8.25. Today he is arguing against ordinances in Trenton and a few other cities that would make employers provide paid sick leave.
Holub says he is against the government mandating it. “This is a very troubling intrusion into how someone runs their business,” he says. “Paid sick leave and vacation time are benefits that employers should have some flexibility to provide.”
Nevertheless, Holub says that offering paid sick leave is a good idea for businesses that want to retain good workers.
Holub will speak about issues facing retailers and other businesses at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce Business Before Business event, Wednesday, October 15, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., at the Nassau Club of Princeton Tickets are $25 for members, $40 for nonmembers. Visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Holub grew up in Union County, where his mother was a teacher and his father was an accountant. He studied political science, earning a bachelor’s degree at Syracuse. While still in college, he volunteered for Christie Whitman’s 1993 gubernatorial campaign. His first full-time job out of college was as an aide in the governor’s office.
“I’ve been down in Trenton ever since,” he says. He spent some time as a Republican political operative, helping the campaigns of Bob Prunetti and a few other Mercer County races. Nine years ago he joined the RMA and has worked there ever since. In his current job, he has worked with many retailers, both large and small.
“I have an appreciation for what it takes to run a retail business,” Holub says. He encourages merchants to visit Trenton, get involved, and make lawmakers listen to their concerns.
Holub’s organization tracks laws on the local level as well as the state level. The retail issue that generates the most laws is plastic bags. Proposed laws range from outright bans to taxes. For example, there is a non-binding referendum on the ballot in Mercer County in November that would promote a 5 cent plastic bag tax, incentivizing consumers to use paper or re-usable bags instead.
You can probably predict Holub’s opinion of this law by now — he’s against it. “You can’t have a patchwork of laws all over the state,” he says. “It would also add a significant cost to consumers, and it would encourage more paper bag use, which is worse for the environment.” Making paper bags uses more water and energy than plastic, he says, and shipping them to stores takes more trucking.
One issue that hasn’t gotten much attention in the press, but which is of utmost concern to retailers, is a battle over gift cards. In 2012 New Jersey passed a law requiring gift card balances to be considered “unclaimed property” if they go unused for five years. After that amount of time, the state would collect the excess balance and try to return it to the rightful owner of the gift card.
Holub hopes to reverse this part of the law before it goes into effect in 2016. Holub warns that consumers certainly would notice this obscure law if it went into effect today. “It almost went into effect in 2012, and at that point, American Express pulled all their gift cards off the shelves,” he says. “You essentially will not be able to get gift cards in the state.”
Holub argues that the state would never be able to track down the proper owners of the gift cards, and that the administrative and technical expense of having the businesses do it would be far too great. “This is creating a significant amount of red tape that does not need to exist.”
The law also included consumer protection provisions that Holub did not oppose. Gift cards in New Jersey never expire, and consumers can cash out cards that have small balances instead of using them for store credit.
Holub’s group does not argue against every change that comes along in the retail industry. He is very much in favor of one measure that would require significant expense on the part of merchants: credit card security. Holub wants credit card companies to shift from magnetic strip technology — which he compares to eight-tracks — to more secure PIN-and-chip systems used in Europe. So far, he says, costs have deterred the big credit card companies from making the change.
Retailers, stung by a recent uptick in credit card fraud, are more than happy to make the investment on their end. (Merchants, not credit card companies, take the financial hit when a consumer’s credit card is used fraudulently.) Holub advises merchants to always upgrade to the latest, most secure technology available to them. “The criminals are getting very sophisticated,” he says.
Holub says business owners should follow these developments and make their voices heard. “Two things you never want to see made are sausages and laws. Unpleasant as it might seem, I encourage them to get involved. Decisions are made every day in Trenton that impact their bottom line. These decisions, quite honestly, are bigger than some being made down in Washington. They can have a really good or bad impact on your business.”