NJ Workers in Line for Small Wage Hike, But Not What Democrats Wanted

Chase Brush | October 3, 2016 | Politics
Stymied by Gov. Christie, Democrats have been unable to get phased-in $15 an hour wage increase before public as ballot referendum

Credit: NPR.org
The statewide minimum wage is set to go to $15 by 2024.
For the second time since voters approved a 2013 ballot question hiking the wage from $7.25 to $8.25 and tying future increases to inflation, New Jersey workers will see an increase in the state’s minimum wage next year.

What they won’t see, and what many Democrats want, is a phased-in $15 an hour minimum wage hike. That will have to wait until sometime in the future, since Gov. Chris Christie has blocked efforts to put the question on the ballot.)

According to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, New Jersey’s minimum wage will see a six-cent increase in 2017, bringing the current $8.38 an hour to $8.44. The hike comes as experts predict a rise in the consumer price index, a tool the federal government uses to measure inflation and lawmakers in New Jersey use to set the wage each year.

The increase — the first since 2015 — should be good news for minimum-wage advocates in the state, many of whom three years ago pushed for the passage of a much-debated constitutional amendment that called for the state’s previous minimum wage, at $7.25 an hour, to be hiked by $1.00. Democrats led the charge on that measure, proposing and then voting in two successive legislative sessions to put the issue to voters in the form of a November ballot question. The move effectively circumvented Gov. Chris Christie, who had vetoed an earlier version of the legislation, warning that it could “jeopardize the economic recovery we all seek” in the state.

But the ballot question was approved by voters, hiking the wage to $8.25 in 2014 and later to $8.38 in 2015, when a bump in the CPI foretold an increase in the cost of living for that year. The federal CPI figures released last September showed no rise in inflation between 2014 and 2015, keeping the minimum wage at the same level in New Jersey in 2016.

Of course, given more recent efforts surrounding an even more ambitious wage hike, it’s likely the latest increase will still fall short of expectations for some. Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson), following the Department of Labor’s announcement, said the current minimum wage law was a “good effort” but maintained that more needs to be done.

“We need an actual living wage if we’re to lift families out of poverty, and this current level isn’t nearly enough,” Prieto said. “That’s why I’ve pushed to increase the minimum wage as a key point of our effort to combat poverty, and it’s why we will continue the fight to help working families earn a decent living by bringing the question to the voters.”

In order to provide what they characterize as much-needed economic relief for the state’s working class, Democrats earlier this year sent Christie a bill that would have boosted the minimum wage to $15 an hour, with future increases tied to inflation, as the current amendment requires. Prieto was behind that legislation, as was Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a prospective 2017 gubernatorial candidate who has called that the wage be raised in order to put New Jersey at the “forefront of what has become a national movement to create a high-wage society that guarantees prosperity for all Americans.”

Both New York and California have adopted legislation raising their minimum wages to $15, and the issue was a flashpoint at this year’s Democratic primary, as both socialist Bernie Sanders and establishment candidate Hillary Clinton campaigned on platforms that included as their centerpiece a promise to bring workers a “living wage.” And it’s bound to similarly influence the Democratic gubernatorial primary in New Jersey, as both frontrunners for that race — Sweeney and former U.S. ambassador and Goldman Sachs executive Phil Murphy — have said they support the policy.

According a report last year by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, increasing New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 would boost the pay of about one in four Garden State workers, or 975,000 men and women.

The issue is at least unlikely to see any movement until then. Christie, a two-term Republican who’s entering his last year in office, vetoed Democrats’ $15 wage bill earlier this month, calling it “really radical” and a “reckless effort” that would hurt business in the state. Republicans have echoed similar concerns, arguing that the measure would hike the minimum wage too high, too fast, leaving companies struggling to compensate for the added expense.

Such opposition has forced Democrats to put off plans to reintroduce similar legislation until next year, when a Democratic primary battle could provide an environment to reinvigorate the conversation. Sweeney and Prieto have vowed to take another run at the issue, and labor unions and other advocates for low-wage workers are also likely to spend considerably to support a new ballot question ahead of a potential 2017 referendum.

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