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On Day One Murphy Highlights $15 Minimum Wage But No Details or Timeline

Governor acknowledges his staff and those of Democratic leaders in Senate and Assembly have just begun to discuss finer points of implementing an increase in the wage

Murphy Min Wage Talk
Gov. Phil Murphy discusses the minimum wage during a roundtable with low-wage workers in Newark yesterday.

For those hoping Gov. Phil Murphy would use his first full day in office to announce a deal with fellow Democrats who control the state Legislature on hiking New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15, yesterday did not turn out to be that day.

Instead, Murphy held a roundtable discussion in Newark yesterday with low-wage workers, labor activists and other elected officials, where they collectively emphasized the need to increase the current hourly rate of $8.60, and to also improve the state’s earned sick-leave law.

Several of the workers told personal stories about how a higher minimum wage would help them do things like afford to pay for groceries, utility bills and cover student loans.

“It’s a struggle every day,” said Devika Smith, a nursing assistant from Jersey City.

But after the event, while taking just a few questions from reporters, Murphy said there have only been initial discussions with top leaders in the Assembly and Senate on the minimum-wage issue, meaning details like how quickly the hourly rate will be increased and whether any industries or age groups will be carved out remain in flux. He also didn’t set a timeline for getting a $15 minimum-wage bill signed into law.

Murphy: No good answer on timing

“We’re working with our teams and their teams,” Murphy said when pressed for details. “I don’t have a good answer as to timing, but they’re very high priorities for us.”

While Murphy was just sworn into office on Tuesday, it’s been two months since he held a celebratory, post-election news conference on the minimum-wage issue with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex). The event raised expectations among those seeking the higher wage, but yesterday demonstrated the learning curve that Murphy is now facing.

The former Goldman Sachs executive never held public office before he won the governor’s race last year, and while Murphy ran on a progressive agenda that featured items like a minimum-wage hike and a higher tax rate on millionaires, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to work closely with lawmakers from his own party who may not be as liberal as he is to enact his full agenda.

Still, Murphy held firm yesterday to his oft-repeated campaign promise to enact a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey without any exemptions or carveouts, delighting activists who attended yesterday’s roundtable.

“It still is my position,” Murphy told reporters. “We’ve studied this pretty extensively.”

Christie warned increase would cause layoffs

The minimum hourly wage in New Jersey for all of 2018 is $8.60 and any future increases will be determined by hikes in inflation, thanks to changes to the state constitution that New Jersey voters made in 2013. Those included immediately hiking the minimum wage by $1, and tying future adjustments to the federal rate of inflation.

But, as the inflationary adjustments have only been very modest in recent years and since other places have started to pass measures lifting their rates to $15, legislative leaders in New Jersey have been mounting an effort to enact a measure calling for New Jersey’s minimum wage to be increased to $15 by 2021. One bill would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 at the start of 2017, and then incrementally over the next four years, to $15. But former Gov. Chris Christie vetoed that bill in 2016, warning that it would have brought layoffs and other economic impacts, including a shift toward more automation.

Democratic legislative leaders responded by calling for a ballot question to increase the wage, announcing a similar strategy to the one they used successfully in 2013. But they were ultimately unable to resolve a number of differences on the finer details of the issue, and the push to hike the minimum wage through another constitutional amendment never made it onto the ballot this year.

But with the Republican Christie officially giving way to Murphy on Tuesday, there is no longer an ideological roadblock in the governor’s office when it comes to issues like the minimum wage and earned sick leave. (Christie also vetoed a bill seeking to increase earned family leave last year.)

Hope that swift action on the minimum wage would come soon after Murphy took office was stoked some by the governor, Sweeney, and Coughlin back in November when the trio held a news conference with labor leaders in Trenton to emphasize the need for a $15 minimum wage in New Jersey. But following that event it was clear that the three leaders had yet to work out the key details, like how quickly the rate would be lifted to $15, and whether there will be exemptions for industries like restaurants and farms.

Murphy: ‘So, bear with us’

Murphy conceded after yesterday’s event that an accord has still not been reached as his own staff and representatives of the legislative leaders are still in the initial stages of discussion.

“Our teams are literally, we just had the kickoff meeting, I said a week ago, I don’t think it was a week ago, last Thursday,” Murphy said. “So, bear with us.”

Meanwhile, Coughlin said in a statement issued after the event that he was looking forward to “discussing this further with Gov. Murphy and the Assembly Democratic caucus as we work toward our shared goal of an increased minimum wage.” Sweeney could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Still, Analilia Mejia, director of the NJ Working Families organization, said after the roundtable that she was encouraged to hear Murphy keep to his commitment to enact a “clean” minimum-wage bill that would not include any carveouts or exemptions. She also noted that it wasn’t just Murphy, but other Democrats who campaigned last year on the issue of increasing the minimum wage to $15.

“I am working hard to make sure that what I heard on the campaign trail is ultimately what happens,” Mejia said.

While it won’t need any Republican votes to pass a minimum-wage bill if Democrats can eventually find enough common ground among themselves, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) issued a statement that renewed an offer to work with Murphy on a bipartisan measure that would hike the wage, though likely not up to the $15 level that Murphy is seeking.

“The offer still stands,” Kean Jr. said. “We should work together to accomplish a minimum wage increase in a bipartisan way.”

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