New Jersey Lawmakers Join Renewed Effort to Raise Federal Minimum Wage

John Reitmeyer | May 2, 2017 | Politics
In-state Democrats wait to work on hiking state’s minimum wage until new governor takes over in 2018

minimum wage job
A debate over the federal minimum wage that appeared to have ended last year as the national election results came in has now been renewed in Washington, D.C., and several lawmakers from New Jersey are among those who are attempting to breathe new life into the issue.

Legislation introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and others calls for the $7.25 per-hour federal minimum wage to increase in several phases over the next few years, before eventually hitting $15 in 2024. The minimum-wage bill echoes a major campaign issue for Sanders, an independent who ran unsuccessfully in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton, who also favored a less aggressive hike in the federal per-hour wage.

Though Republicans are in firm control of the Congress, and also the White House thanks to President Donald Trump’s victory over Clinton last fall, Democrats say they believe a majority of Americans still support their proposal to increase a federal minimum wage that was last changed in 2009. And they are pledging to continue pressing the issue even though right now it has little chance of moving forward in Washington.

“This is about real people, it’s about folks in my community,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) during a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We’re going to continue this fight until we get justice,” he said.

Booker: Urgent need for a raise

The renewed effort to increase the federal rate was praised by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank based in Trenton that released new estimates yesterday to detail how many New Jersey workers would directly benefit from the higher minimum wage. But officials from the New Jersey Business & Industry Association also weighed in, calling for a more thoughtful approach to the issue, one that evaluates a number of concerns, including the impact such a change could have on small businesses and nonprofits.

“Nothing happens in a vacuum,” said Michele Siekerka, NJBIA’s president and chief executive officer.

The new attention being placed on the federal minimum wage also comes as a similar push to increase New Jersey’s minimum wage that was launched last year by Democratic legislative leaders remains stalled thanks to a veto issued by Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican. The legislative leaders are suggesting they’re now looking toward early 2018, when New Jersey’s next governor takes office, for the next chance to hike New Jersey’s own $8.44 minimum wage.

During the 2016 presidential primary, Clinton favored a $12 federal minimum wage, while Sanders was calling for the more aggressive hike to $15. But Booker, who was a Clinton supporter, said yesterday that both totals remain less than what the minimum wage should be set at just to keep pace with inflation over the last several decades. And he said data coming out of places like Seattle — which has increased its minimum wage in recent years — is compelling enough to favor making the jump nationally.

“This is something that I believe is urgent,” Booker said. “The data is so clear.”

Wage hike could affect 1 million in NJ

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th) said even though Trump has questioned the need for a federal minimum wage, making it unlikely he’d sign legislation seeking to increase the current rate, that’s no reason for those who support the hike to $15 to now stand down.

“I just think we just have to still lay out what we think still must be,” Pallone said during the call.

In New Jersey, the phased-in hike of the minimum wage to $15 by 2024 would impact more than 1 million workers, according to the estimates released yesterday by New Jersey Policy Perspective. The total includes 688,000 workers who would be impacted directly, and another 481,000 who would also be likely to see wage increases as the base wage rises. The think tank estimates 57 percent of those who would be impacted by the higher wage in New Jersey are between the ages of 25 and 54, dispelling the common stereotype that the minimum wage is mostly earned by teenagers working their first jobs.

“These are people that are trying to scratch out a stable life here in New Jersey,” said Jon Whiten, the think tank’s vice president. “$8.44 simply doesn’t cut it.”

Last year, the bill backed by Democratic legislative leaders also sought to increase New Jersey’s minimum wage, and it called for a more aggressive phase-in period. The current $8.44 per-hour wage would have nearly doubled to $15.10 at the start of 2021.

Christie vetoed NJ increase

But Christie vetoed the measure last summer, and Democratic legislative leaders couldn’t come together in an effort to put the issue before voters, as they had done when the last state minimum wage hike was authorized by voters as a constitutional amendment in 2013. Under that policy change, the state minimum wage is also now linked to inflation; the last increase occurred earlier this year as the rate moved up slightly from $8.38.

Now, the Democrats say they are looking to next year since Christie will be forced to leave office in early 2018 under New Jersey’s gubernatorial term limits. And after two terms under Christie — who has struggled in recent months to improve record-low approval ratings — many are expecting New Jersey voters will pick a Democrat in November. (Democrats favor a higher minimum wage.)

“I would support a straight-up ballot question without any exemptions, but unfortunately we could not reach a consensus, so unfortunately, we need to hope the next governor is someone who’s prepared to do the right thing by raising the minimum wage here to $15 per hour,” Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said in a statement.

Luke Margolis, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), said Sweeney is also looking toward 2018 for movement on the minimum wage.

“He believes when a Democrat takes office in 2018, one of their first official acts should be to sign legislation raising the wage immediately, a timeline that nearly mirrors what would have occurred had a ballot question been agreed upon, posted this year and approved by voters,” Margolis said.

But Siekerka, the NJBIA leader, cautioned against enacting changes at the state or federal level without first analyzing the issue more closely. Her organization isn’t against discussing an increased minimum wage, but wants those talks to be comprehensive so that issues like regionalization and workforce development can be closely considered by policymakers.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re helping the people that everybody is trying to help,” Siekerka said.