Oregon, New Jersey consider the unthinkable: Letting people pump their own gas
Legislators in the only two states that do not allow residents to pump their own gas at service stations are considering revising their decades-old rules in the face of a national labor shortage that has led to long lines at the pump.
New bills that would allow motorists to pump their own fuel have made progress in recent weeks in Oregon and New Jersey after years of inaction in the midst of behind-the-scenes wrangling between high-powered special interest groups.
In both states, the bills would create a hybrid system: Service stations would still be required to offer full-service options, but they would also be allowed to offer self-serve options for drivers who want to pump their own fuel.
The sponsors of both bills say it is high time the two states join the modern era, in which safety advances make it difficult to operate a machine incorrectly.
“It’s about time. It’s only 73 years, let’s get a grip here,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Edward Thomson, the Republican leader and one of the bill’s two prime sponsors, along with Democratic Whip Carol Murphy. “Every other state has it. It’s not a safety issue. The new pumps are as safe as can be.”
The renewed push for self-service comes at a time when labor shortages are affecting much of the economy, and especially low-wage jobs, like the gas station attendants who take payment to fill up a car. In Oregon, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the unemployment rate at just 4.2 percent, the lack of workers has led to closed pumps and long lines of idling vehicles.
“When we pull into a fueling station right now, half of the pumps are closed down and they have garbage cans or cones in front of them,” said Oregon state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis (R), who co-sponsored her state’s bill alongside state House Majority Leader Julie Fahey (D). “They don’t have enough attendants to service all of them.”
Supporters say the changes will help gas station owners, who are largely franchisees who make just pennies on each gallon of gas sold. Cutting down on the number of employees they must hire, they say, would preserve their small businesses.
“The current law that does not allow for self-serve is crippling my small business,” Joe Ocello, a gas station owner and president of the New Jersey Gasoline and Convenience Store Automotive Association told legislators in a letter last week. “Increasing prices and labor shortages are making it more and more difficult to run a gas station.”
Ostensibly, the existing full-service rules exist to protect the elderly and the disabled, who either cannot pump their own gas or just do not wish to.
But in practice, the laws are the legacy of make-work programs promoted in the years after World War II, when hundreds of thousands of service members returned stateside competing for jobs in an economy that suddenly included millions more women in the workforce than before the war.
New Jersey implemented its full-service rules in 1949. Oregon followed two years later. In the decades since, generations of high school and college-age kids would work their first jobs pumping gas and taking payment.
Opponents of the change in both Oregon and New Jersey maintain that tinkering with full-service rules will cost jobs and reduce safety.
UFCW Local 555, the largest private sector union in Oregon, said the bill “represents the first cut in a pathway that will lead to the reduction and subsequent disappearance of jobs, and a higher risk of spills and dangerous accidents.”
In one novel argument, the Oregon union also said that both states have lower flu contagion rates than do other states. “As new, more contagious COVID variants appear, Oregon may want to re-think adopting a policy that would lead to many traveling people necessarily grabbing a common pump handle.”
Oregon amended their law in 2015, allowing gas stations in rural areas to offer self-service pumps full time and allowing stations in some coastal counties to offer those pumps after business hours. But opposition to a full repeal remains entrenched in the state conscience.
“There’s a faction of people that just call it the Oregon way. They’re like, ‘That’s what we do in Oregon, we don’t pump our own fuel.’ And then there’s a faction of people who say it’s jobs,” Boshart Davis said.
The two measures face uncertain fates. The Oregon version passed through a state House committee last week, but even advocates admitted they had little hope of final passage before the current legislative session, an abbreviated even-year session, ends.
The New Jersey version was only introduced last week. Even if it passes, it is not clear Gov. Phil Murphy (D) would give his approval.
“I will not commit political suicide this morning,” Murphy said at a news conference in 2019, asked whether he would allow self-service gasoline. “I’m not going near who pumps the gas.”
In interviews, supporters said they hope to bring their measures up again next year, if progress stalls this time around.
“We have good support on both sides. It’s a bipartisan bill,” New Jersey’s Thomson said.
The contentious debate seems bizarrely antiquated to anyone living outside either state, and even to recent transplants. Public comments solicited by the Oregon legislature this year include several incredulous screeds by residents who have moved from other states and cannot fathom the fact that they cannot pump their own gas.
“Coming from another state more than 10 years ago, I was shocked to see long lines of cars running and waiting for attendants to plod around pumping gas,” an Oregon resident named Keith Harber wrote to the legislature. “Please put an end to this stupid charade someone enshrined in this state, and step into a more modern era where consumers are not treated like idiots unable to pump gas.”