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Would Newark Airport Pay Increase Give Murphy His Minimum-Wage Victory?

The governor campaigned on a promise to boost the minimum wage. If the Port Authority votes to raise salaries of airport workers, has Murphy made good on his pledge?

SEIU airport employees Murphy
Gov. Phil Murphy speaking at an SEIU airport employee rally at Newark International

While Gov. Phil Murphy is still trying to convince lawmakers to significantly increase New Jersey’s minimum wage, he may be close to scoring a big pay increase for thousands of workers at Newark Liberty Airport.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is expected to hold a vote later this month on a proposal to phase in a minimum-wage increase for some 40,000 airport workers across the region, including at Newark Liberty, where the rate would jump from $10.45 an hour to $19 over the next five years. Newark Liberty’s minimum wage is currently lower than that of Port Authority airports based in New York.

Murphy attended a union rally at the airport yesterday that was held to call attention to the upcoming vote by the Port Authority commissioners, who serve as appointees of the two states’ governors. The first-term Democrat is a strong supporter of the proposed wage increase, and he personally attended a vote by the commissioners that put the issue up for consideration earlier this year. After a lengthy public-comment period, a final decision is expected on September 27.

Though some concerns have been raised about the impact the increase could have on the businesses that operate at the airport, the governor told members of the Service Employees International Union who rallied yesterday on the third floor of busy Terminal C that he “has every reason to believe” the commissioners would honor their prior commitment to phased-in increase. Under the schedule up for consideration, the rate would go up by $2 for the Newark airport workers this year, and then to $15.60 next year. Additional increases would occur until the rate hits $19 in 2023.

“It’s about dignity (and) it’s about a livable wage,” Murphy said. “It’s about security.”

Campaigning for higher minimum wage

One of the core messages that Murphy stressed on the campaign trail in 2016 was a need to strengthen the state economy and to make it work effectively for more than just its wealthiest residents. He also frequently pointed to stagnant wage growth and called specifically for a statewide minimum wage of $15 to be established in New Jersey as part of an urban-renewal agenda.

The state’s current minimum hourly rate is $8.60. It is likely to be increased slightly at the beginning of 2019 under inflationary-adjustment language that is written into the state constitution.

Even though both houses of the Legislature are currently controlled by Democrats — including many who previously supported legislation seeking a $15 minimum wage — they have yet to pass any new bills as they continue to work on the finer details of the proposed increase. Those include how fast the hike to $15 would be phased in, and whether any individual industries, age groups, or geographical regions would be excluded.

Although he’s yet to score what appeared to be a policy layup earlier this year, Murphy showed no signs during yesterday’s union rally that he is backing off of his commitment to increase the statewide minimum wage. In fact, he cast the push for higher wages for the airport workers as an “important battle in a bigger war,” and later in the day his office announced a public event on the minimum wage will be held today with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).

“It is a war we’re going to not relent on,” Murphy said.

Long push for higher pay

Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU 32BJ, said the push to increase the airport workers’ wages goes back to 2012, with the union members holding a series of marches and protests during the tenure of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed earlier attempts to hike their wages. The effort is of particularl interest to the Newark airport workers since their counterparts at other Port Authority airports that are located in New York already make a $13 minimum wage under legislation that was enacted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also supports an increase for airport workers.

“We have doing everything possible,” Figueroa said yesterday. “We all know that when workers experience better pay, dignity, and respect on the job, all of New Jersey benefits.”

But not everyone has been in favor of increasing wages for Newark airport workers, as the facility is already one of the costliest airports in the nation. Michele Siekerka, chief executive of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the proposed $19 minimum wage would be “the highest in the nation, regardless of region or industry” once its fully phased in.

‘Cumulative costs’

“Increasing the minimum wage should not be done without considering the cumulative cost to businesses and the impact on New Jersey's regional competitiveness,” Siekerka said. “To ignore these impacts is to risk losing our businesses to other states as they either relocate entirely or expand elsewhere while stagnating in New Jersey.”

Meanwhile, concerns have also been raised about whether the Port Authority has the legal power to set wages at its facilities that exceed the laws of the states they’re located in. Murphy referred yesterday to fears that the Port Authority’s pending action could ultimately draw a lawsuit, but he also appealed to businesses that operate at Newark airport to comply with whatever decision is reached by the commissioners for the greater good of the region.

“We plead with the private sector to stand up and abide by that decision because it is the right thing to do,” Murphy said.

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