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Clergy Urge Governor, Lawmakers to Raise Minimum Wage in NJ to $15

With politicians seeming to have become bogged down on issue, religious coalition expresses urgency about addressing Garden State’s widening wage gap

Minimum wage
Credit: 15 Now!NJ

The campaign to lift the state minimum wage to $15 has broadened to include a large coalition of religious leaders who are calling on Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders to pass a rate hike this year.

In a letter to the governor and lawmakers being sent today, the coalition of 19 religious leaders cited the “critical reality” of income inequality in New Jersey as a reason for swift adoption of a higher minimum wage.

The move comes just as the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced that the minimum wage will be raised from $8.60 to $8.85 as of January 1, due to an inflationary adjustment required under a constitutional amendment that New Jersey voters passed in 2013.

“For too long we have overlooked the widening gap between those who are benefiting from New Jersey’s growing economy and those whose wages have not kept up with the high cost of living in this state,” the clergy wrote.

Just how influential the religious leaders and other advocates for the $15 minimum wage will be in the remaining months of the year, remains to be seen; lawmakers and the governor seem to be bogged down in the details of the issue, including whether there should be carveouts for specific industries.

State’s minimum set to rise by 25 cents in January

The minimum-wage increase, just announced, marks the largest inflationary step-up to occur since voters adopted the 2013 constitutional amendment; that amendment also called for an immediate $1 increase of what was then a $7.25 minimum wage. The latest 25-cent bump is the direct result of a nearly 3 percent increase in inflation, as measured by the federal government over the last year.

Since the constitutional amendment was adopted, the state’s minimum wage has increased by 20 percent. But the overall pace of growth has been far too slow for many advocates. They ultimately want to see minimum-wage workers earning within a few years at least $15, a figure that’s been championed by former presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The letter sent today to Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) by a group called the “Coalition of Religious Leaders” suggests its member agree with the call for phasing in increases in the minimum wage over several years. But the letter also says higher wages should be provided “for all workers this year.”

“We are most concerned that some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters might be excluded from this increase in wages,” the letter said.

Carveouts are key

Those comments are aimed at the issue of carveouts, which has been at the heart of the latest discussions on the minimum-wage issue in Trenton as Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has tried to win consensus among lawmakers from his own party for one of the core promises of his 2017 gubernatorial campaign.

Phil Murphy
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy held a press conference on raising the minimum wage September 6 in New Brunswick.

Sweeney and Coughlin have also voiced their support for the adoption of a phased-in $15 minimum wage, but the three leaders have yet to agree on whether there should be any exceptions, including for employees of small businesses and those in industries where workers regularly receive tips. The carveout issue has also been among the key concerns raised by the state’s most prominent business-lobbying groups.

But the religious leaders wrote that they are concerned about how exceptions could impact groups like agricultural workers and tipped workers.

“The majority of these workers are persons of color and women; hardworking New Jerseyans who struggle to raise their families with the current system,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, two mayors from Middlesex County, Wilda Diaz of Perth Amboy and James Cahill of New Brunswick, held a news conference with several low-wage workers in New Brunswick yesterday to voice their support for legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 for all workers.

Letter to Trenton

worker minimum wage
Credit: NPR.org

“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a step in the right direction to help workers support themselves and sustain a family in our county,” Diaz said.

“Now is the time to take action to raise the wage for all New Jersey’s hard-working families,” Cahill said.

The following is a list of the religious leaders who signed the letter that was sent to Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin:

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archdiocese of Newark; Rev. Fr. Guy W. Selvester, Diocese of Metuchen; Deacon Patrick Brannigan, NJ Catholic Conference, Trenton; Matthew D. Gewirtz, Senior Rabbi, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills; Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck, Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough; Rabbi David C. Levy; Imam W. Deen Shareef, Convener of the Council of Imams in NJ, Resident Imam at Masjid Waarith ud Deen, Newark; The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, Bishop Episcopal Diocese of NJ, Trenton; The Rev. Tracie Bartholomew, Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America NJ Synod, Hamilton Square; The Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Smith, Transitional Director of Presbytery Ministries, Presbytery of Newark; Bishop John Schol, Greater NJ Conference of the United Methodist Church, Neptune; The Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, Reformed Church of America, Synod of New Jersey, Highland Park; The Rev. Bob Tomlinson, Executive Director, Presbytery of New Brunswick, New Brunswick; The Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director Unitarian Universalist Faith Action NJ, Summit; The Rev. Harold Delhagen, Presbyterian Synod of the Northeast, Syracuse; The Rev. Charles Boyer, Pastor, Bethel AME Church of Woodbury; Jack Johnson, Coordinator, Coalition of Religious Leaders, Columbus; The Rev. Dr. Tanya Bennett, Drew University, Madison; and The Rev. Sara Lilja, Director Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry NJ, Hamilton Square.

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