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Democratic Lawmakers, Labor Advocates Push for Higher Minimum Wage

Initiative to raise hourly wage of working poor to $15 could end up being decided by voters at the ballot box

Vincent Prieto
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) speaks during a news conference with labor advocates calling for a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey.

Less than three years after advocates for a higher minimum wage convinced New Jersey voters to boost the pay of the state’s lowest-wage workers, a new battle over the income of the state’s working poor is brewing in the State House.

And the issue looks as if it could again end up being decided by voters at the ballot box, just as it was in 2013 after Gov. Chris Christie rejected the last legislative effort to increase the state’s minimum wage.

A new push for a higher minimum wage, launched yesterday by Democratic lawmakers, labor advocates, and other activists, sets the goal at $15. That would add more than $6 to the current minimum wage of $8.38, a jump of 79 percent.

“When you think about the current minimum wage, providing about $17,000 a year, you just can’t make ends meet under the current minimum wage,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) during a news conference in the State House yesterday.

Wisniewski and other advocates also said a higher minimum wage would ultimately help the state economy by putting more money in the wallets of low-wage workers. A $15 minimum wage would give a raise to an estimated 1/3 of the overall workforce in New Jersey.

But opponents say now is the wrong time to even talk about such an increase, adding a $15 minimum wage would hit hardest small-business owners in New Jersey’s many Main Street business districts.

“It’s just a major, dramatic increase,” said Michael Egenton, senior vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “I think it will be a shock to the system of the employer.”

New Jersey’s minimum wage was last increased to $8.38 at the beginning of 2015. That came after voters in 2013 approved a $1 hike from $7.25 to $8.25, along with automatic future increases based on the annual rate of inflation. The increase from $8.25 to $8.38 in 2015 occurred after a slight rise in the Consumer Price Index, a measurement of inflation that’s commonly referred to as CPI. There was no change at the beginning of 2016.

The push for a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey comes in the wake of recent efforts by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to phase in a similar increase in his state, and as Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has seen his support in public opinion polls rise while calling for a $15 national minimum wage.

And it follows an anti-poverty initiative that was launched last month by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), who said yesterday that a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey would also help address the state’s high rate of poverty.

“This is about people who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Prieto said.

But New Jersey right now is still in the midst of a slow recovery from the most recent recession. The state added more than 64,000 jobs in 2015, and saw unemployment dip by more than a full point to 5.1 percent. But New Jersey still hasn’t recovered all of the jobs that were lost to the last economic recession, and state tax collections have still not fully rebounded from that recession either.

Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, pointed to that slow growth yesterday while explaining her organization’s opposition to a $15 minimum wage. And she said New Jersey’s small-business owners are still getting acclimated to the last minimum-wage increase and other mandates that have come down from government in recent years.

“Main Street is going to be hit hard by this,” Siekerka said.

Egenton, the chamber of commerce official, agreed. He said members of the chamber were already sending him emails yesterday expressing concern about the $15 minimum-wage proposal as word spread during the day.

“There’s just a lot of concern, across the board,” he said.

And Siekerka also took issue with characterizations that business owners in general are corporate fat cats, not willing to pay or treat their workers well.

“The foundation of our state is small business,” Siekerka said. “I get upset when the constant perception of business owners is the miserly corporate executives.”

But Prieto and Wisniewski said they believe a $15 minimum wage would ultimately help small business owners in New Jersey by adding more consumers to the state economy.

“These small businesses will get more customers,” Prieto said.

And Wisniewski said it would also help ease the burden on state social-welfare programs, which right now are forced to pick up the slack when low-income workers can’t make ends meet.

“It’s a fight worth having, and it’s a fight worth winning,” Wisniewski said.

So far, it’s unclear how much support the push for a $15 minimum wage will generate in the state Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats. Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) attended the news conference yesterday, but Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) did not.

Afterward, a spokesman for Sweeney issued a statement saying the Senate president has backed prior efforts to boost the minimum wage, and “supports efforts to further raise the minimum wage.”

“He looks forward to reviewing the details of the legislation proposed by Speaker Prieto and Senator Lesniak,” said Sweeney spokesman Richard McGrath.

Christie, a second-term Republican who is seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination, was in New Hampshire yesterday holding a series of events in advance of that state’s primary election next week. Christie spokeswoman Joelle Farrell criticized the $15 minimum-wage proposal, lumping it in with Sweeney’s effort to pass a constitutional amendment this fall that would require the state to eventually make full contributions to the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system without first getting workers to make concessions.

“There is absolutely no end to what Democrats in the Legislature will do to kill jobs, drive major businesses out of New Jersey, and destroy an economy that is on the rebound,” Farrell said. Prieto, the Assembly leader, acknowledged Christie will be a roadblock, and he didn’t rule out taking the proposal before voters, as lawmakers did in 2013. But he also said it’s too early to talk about that option.

“Let’s walk before we run,” he said. “Let’s get it through the (legislative) process, and then we will make those decisions as we get there.”

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