At a small gas station in South Jersey, Shaphin Poirier sat in her car as an attendant finished filling up.
Although she knows how to pump her own gas, “Do I want to? No,” Poirier said. She gestured to the cold April drizzle outside.
Of New Jersey’s 73-year ban on pumping your own gasoline, “I like it that way,” Poirier said.
New Jersey and Oregon are the only two states where drivers cannot legally use gasoline, although Oregon’s ban is relaxed in rural areas. Either way, lawmakers introduced bills this year that would change that.
In the Garden State, the Motorist Fueling Choice and Convenience Act would allow all gas stations to offer self-service. Those with more than four pumps would still be required to have a full service option between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The bill would also allow stations to lower the price for customers who pump their own gasoline. Oregon’s bill did not come out of committee until the end of this year’s short legislative session.
In New Jersey, gas station owners say the move would help ease labor shortages and lower prices, but many drivers and politicians remain reluctant to change a practice that has become a hot topic. of pride.
“Every day is a difficult situation, whether the employee shows up or not,” said Roger Verma, owner of 11 gas stations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
COVID-19 has made an already hard-to-fill job that much harder, said Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline-Convenience-Automotive Association.
“I have members on busy highways that they have to shut down, sometimes during the day for a few hours because a shift is coming to an end, and they don’t have anyone to cover for it,” he said. declared.
Gas station employment fell sharply at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but has largely rebounded, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although the return isn’t as robust once you remove supervisors from the job. ‘picture.
Risalvato, whose group supports the new bill, knows the measure faces stiff opposition. His group lobbied for the ban in the first place many years ago.
“It became a source of pride.”
In the late 1940s, a gas station owner in Hackensack began allowing drivers to self-serve, lowering his prices from 22 cents a gallon to 19 cents, according to the Association.
“His gas station competitors were angry because he was stealing all their customers,” Risalvato said, so they ran to his group, which successfully lobbied lawmakers to ban the practice.
Periodically, efforts to lift the ban were made, including several times in the 1980s when gasoline prices rose sharply. after the 1979 oil crisis and remained higher on average, according to the US Department of Energy.
The late Senator Gerald Cardinale frequently championed the cause of self-serve, including in a 1981 New York Times op-ed, where he addressed common arguments against pumping your own gas, such as that it was too dangerous .
“The executive director of the state’s Gasoline Retailers Association said he’s concerned that thoughtless consumers will burn themselves to death because they’re likely to pump gas while smoking. Insurance companies are not Disagree,” he wrote, noting that insurance premiums for full-service and self-serve stations are roughly the same.
Today – and we can look at other states – there is no reasonable justification to say – with modern technology, with automatic shut-off nozzles, with the type of fire suppression equipment available – that there is no longer any reason, from a public safety perspective, why we should not allow people to pump their own gasoline.
Those efforts failed, and independent gas station owners remained opposed to the change, fearing it would give too much power to oil companies who reportedly owned many larger gas stations. Other concerns included accessibility for disabled drivers and the safety of pumping your own gasoline at night.
For years, New Jersey drivers have also enjoyed cheaper gas prices than their neighbors, due to lower-than-average gas taxes. Cheap full-service gas has become part of the culture, with swag to boot, Risalvato said.
“The bumper sticker and the Tee-shirts [saying], ‘Jersey Girls don’t pump gas.’ And it became a source of pride,” he said.
In 2016, that started to change. Then-Governor. Chris Christie raised the gasoline tax for the first time since 1988. New Jersey now has some of the highest gasoline taxes in the country, according to the American Petroleum Institute. AAA gas price data shows Garden State drivers are paying pennies less than the national average.
If self-serve were allowed, New Jersey gas station owners predict they could afford to lower prices at the pump by 7 to 23 cents per gallon, according to a survey by the New Jersey Gasoline-Convenience- Automotive Association.
Verma, the franchise owner, said he understands why residents might be skeptical about what will actually happen. But if just one station lowers its self-serve gas price, others will follow, he said. “Competition will take care of that automatically. Prices have to come down.”
“A third political rail”
So far, top Garden State politicians haven’t passed the bill — though they haven’t ruled it out completely either.
“Self-serve gas is a political third rail in New Jersey that I’ve never crossed,” Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said at a press briefing after the proposed gas bill was announced. law. But he left open the possibility of supporting the bill if he could make life in New Jersey more affordable for residents.
“Given that gasoline prices have averaged over $4 a gallon…I have to understand what impact that would have,” he continued.
Before reaching the governor’s office, the bill will have to convince the president of the Senate Nicholas Scutari will have a chance to pass.
“At this time, I do not support the self-service proposal,” Scutari said in a statement. “However, if public sentiment changes or there is in fact data showing that it would significantly reduce costs, I would reconsider.”
Public opinion varies, according to two recent polls. A March 9 poll by Rutgers-Eagleton found that 73% of respondents would rather have someone else pump their gas. But a later Monmouth University poll found a majority of New Jersey residents, 54%, would support self-service refueling as long as gas stations kept an attendant on duty to provide full service. That same survey found that 70% would choose to pump their own gas if it cost 15 cents less per gallon than the full-service price.
Kay Robinson said she was worried about putting the attendants out of work, as she waited for her husband to come out of a convenience store in Camden County. Many of her friends pumped gas when she was growing up.
“I don’t know what it pays now, but it was a good job at the time,” Robinson said. “Where are they going to go now?”
NPR approached several attendants, none of whom agreed to be officially quoted. Some had not heard of the bill. Of those who did, some thought it could hurt their jobs, while others said it was likely they would simply be moved to another service station.
Robinson said he noticed many stations with closed lanes due to a lack of employees. In this case, they should have the option of letting customers pump, but only if full service is still available. Of the new bill, Robinson said, “I don’t like it.”
Getting rid of full-service stations would change the way she lives in the Garden State, she said.
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