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Amendment to Boost Minimum Wage Not Likely on 2017 Ballot

Disagreements among Democratic sponsors prevent bill from being posted to last legislative agenda for this year

worker minimum wage
Credit: NPR.org

Workers in low-paying jobs holding out hope of seeing a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year boosting the state’s minimum wage will likely have to hold out at least until 2018 — when Gov. Chris Christie is out of office. But the governor isn’t the only obstacle in this case. The bill’s Democratic sponsors butted heads over who would qualify for the pay hike, which kept the bill off the legislative agenda.

The state Legislature adjourned for the year after last night’s session — the final one scheduled in 2016 — without voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have bumped the state’s minimum wage up incrementally to $15 an hour by 2021. That’s because Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) favor different amendments. While both would increase the minimum wage to $15, the Sweeney proposal would carve out exemptions for farmworkers and workers under the age of 18. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) favors what activists call a “clean bill,” one without carve-outs.

And because the Legislature did not vote, it is unlikely that a proposal can be added to the general election ballot in November 2017. In order to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, both houses of the Legislature have to approve proposed constitutional amendments either with a three-fifth supermajority in a single year or by simple majority in successive calendar years. Democrats hold broad majorities in both houses, but fall short of the 24 Senators and 48 Assembly members needed for the supermajority provision to kick in.

Republicans voted as a bloc against ordinary bills that called for minimum wage increases in 2012 and earlier this year. Both passed, but were vetoed by the governor. Republicans also voted against the 2013 constitutional amendment setting the minimum wage at $8.25.

Given that a supermajority would be needed for a ballot question, activists say it appears more realistic that the wage hike will have to wait for a new governor to take office in January 2018.

“The path is unlikely politically,” said Jon Whiten, vice president of New Jersey Policy Perspective. “My guess is, when it fizzles out this year, the legislative leadership will end up saying ‘wait until the next administration.’ I think it is a reality and unfortunate that low-wage workers will have to wait.”

NJPP said the wage hike would have aided one in four workers in the state — about 975,000 workers, more than 90 percent of whom are 18 or older.

Activists had been hopeful that New Jersey could be part of a national movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The Legislature passed bill A-15 earlier this year, which would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 in January and then incrementally increase the wage to at least $15 by January 2021, with cost of living adjustments to occur in future years. Christie vetoed the bill in August, and Democratic leadership in both chambers said they planned to put the minimum-wage hike on the 2017 ballot in the form of a constitutional amendment.

"While I'm disappointed the governor has once again turned his back on the most vulnerable participants in our economy, Senate Democrats stand ready to continue our march for economic fairness," Sweeney told NJ.com at the time. "We will do the right thing and introduce a constitutional amendment to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by the year 2021."

Since then, however, Sweeney and Prieto have diverged on what the amendment should look like. Sweeney, who did not respond to several requests for comment, told Politico earlier this month that increasing farmworker wages would imperil South Jersey farms.

“We can’t absorb the cost. Farming is a commodity. And we compete all around the country when we sell commodity,” said Sweeney, who represents South Jersey, which is farming country. When you’re selling something nationally it really comes down to price.”

Prieto, however, continues to support a more sweeping ballot question.

“I support a minimum wage ballot question without any carve outs, but a draft included amendments that excluded some groups, and quite frankly that remains unresolved,” he said in a statement. “It’s obvious that time is running out to do something this year, but let’s remember that Democrats already made their support for a $15 minimum wage clear in a bill without exclusions that originated from the Assembly, only to see it vetoed by the governor. This debate will surely continue and, hopefully, the next governor will be a Democratic governor more amenable to legislative changes.”

Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association remain opposed to any wage hike, saying it will kill business growth and limit the ability of smaller businesses to hire new workers. The New Jersey Farm Bureau has opposed the minimum wage hike, as well.

A report outlining its 2016 legislative priorities adopted in November 2015, said the agriculture industry provides benefits to its workers that other industries do not have to cover, including housing for farmworkers and transportation. Representatives from the Farm Bureau did not respond to requests for comment.

Ryck Suydam, president of the Farm Bureau, said in a press release in May after the Senate passed its version of A15 that payroll accounted for about two-fifths of farm expenses and the legislation could cost some farms from “$100,000 up to $300,000.” They would not be able to pass the increase along to consumers because they are not responsible for setting prices.

“Because farmers are price-takers, not price-makers, they would be handcuffed by this — unable to pass along the state mandated cost increase,” he said.

That leaves farmworkers struggling to pay their bills, say advocates. Most of them in southern New Jersey earn between $7,000 and $10,000 a year and have to work multiple jobs during the winter just to cover their expenses, said Jessica Culley, general coordinator for CATA-The Farmworker Support Committee. CATA advocates for farm workers in South Jersey, providing legal, organizing, educational, and research assistance.

Most farmworker households, she said, fall below the poverty line even though multiple family members may work on farms during the season. She said they are working up to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week during the season without being paid for overtime because farm work is exempt from overtime regulations.

“Most folks are living paycheck to paycheck,” Culley said. “It is hard to manage unexpected things — your car breaks down, your kid needs to go to the hospital, you have to go to hospital. It makes survival difficult.”

Activists are backing Prieto’s approach for several reasons: Covering all workers under the same rules is the fairest approach and the easiest to sell at the polls, and creating a tiered wage system would pit teen workers against older low-wage workers who may be seeking the same jobs.

“It is not fair to create a second class of people,” Culley said. “They are contributing to the economy and society” by doing much of the hard work that needs to happen on the state’s farms. They prepare the land and plant crops, weed and maintain fields during the season, apply chemical herbicides and pesticides, clear and clean the fields at the end of the season, and often prepare and pack produce for market.

Craig Garcia, political director for New Jersey Working Families, one of the groups that has been organizing around the minimum-wage hike, said the exemptions were unfair and would mean that “discrimination against farm workers and youth workers would be codified in the state constitution.”

“These exemptions have not been imposed in states that have passed $15 minimum wages, and California and New York have much larger farming communities than New Jersey,” he said.

Whiten agreed. In addition to California and New York, which sets different schedules for increasing the wage for different regions, Washington D.C., has approved a $15 minimum wage, while four other states have increased their minimums to at least $12 an hour. Oregon sets its minimum by county — the two counties that make up the Portland Metro area will see their minimum wage increase to $14.75, 18 rural counties will see it increase to $12.50, and the remaining 15 counties will see wages increase to $13.50 by 2022. It does not, however, distinguish among types of workers.

“There have been a number of increases in recent years and, particularly with statewide ballot measures, no states have a youth carve-out and no states have an agricultural carve out,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Farm Bureau said that 17 states — none of which have increased their minimum in recent years — have an agricultural exemption on the books. Suydam, in his May statement, cited the New York approach as “recognition of the disproportionate impact to rural industries” the minimum wage increase would have. New Jersey, he said, has recognized this in the past with grant programs and other “offsets” for farmers.

“New Jersey has a history of recognizing that farming is particularly vulnerable to certain policy initiatives and has developed special programs and rules to maintain and grow this $1.3 billion wholesale industry,” he said. “This is yet another one of those situations.”

Advocates say this ignores the impact that farmworker wages have on the rest of the economy. Low-wage workers spend the money they earn at local businesses, which would help the retail economy in the southern half of the state.

“We need these economies to flourish,” Whiten said. “Everyone benefits when workers have money to spend. Right now, you walk down Main Street in Bridgeton and all shops are closed. Putting money in pockets of workers would help benefit the local economy.”

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