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Major South Jersey Employer to Start Paying $15 Minimum Wage in 2019

Cooper University Health Care’s new pay rate will benefit hundreds of Camden residents. Chairman George Norcross suggests other healthcare companies should follow Cooper’s lead

Cooper Health Care, Camden
The campus of Cooper Health Care in Camden

Cooper University Health Care, a major South Jersey employer that’s led by one of the state’s most influential Democrats, is the latest company to announce plans to pay workers a $15 minimum wage.

The company’s new wage policy will take effect at the start of 2019, boosting the pay of an estimated 10 percent of Cooper’s 7,500 employees, according to an official announcement released yesterday.

The increased hourly rate will benefit hundreds of residents of Camden, where Cooper is headquartered, while also making the company more competitive as a regional employer, said Cooper chairman George E. Norcross III.

“In addition to being the right thing to do, we believe investing in our employees is a smart business decision that will pay dividends in the long run by helping us attract and retain talented people who will ultimately improve the health care experience for our patients,” Norcross said.

Cooper’s announcement drew praise from Gov. Phil Murphy and others who have been trying to convince lawmakers to pass legislation before the end of the year that would put the state on a path to establishing a statewide minimum wage of $15.

Norcross and Sweeney

In addition to his leadership role at Cooper, Norcross is considered the Democratic political boss of South Jersey and one of the most powerful Democratic leaders in the state. He has close ties to Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), one of the key figures in ongoing minimum-wage discussions in Trenton. Norcross is also the brother of U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st).

New Jersey’s current hourly minimum wage is set to go up by a quarter to $8.85 on January 1, thanks to an inflationary adjustment that’s required under language that was written into the state constitution in 2013 following the adoption of a statewide referendum.

George Norcross
George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper Universeity Health Care: New $15 miniumum wage is a “a smart business decision.”

The state’s minimum wage has increased by 20 percent since voters approved the referendum, but many advocates say the pace of growth has been far too slow as low-wage earners continue to struggle to make ends meet in high-cost New Jersey. The advocates ultimately want to see all minimum-wage workers earning at least $15 an hour within a few years, a goal that former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and others have championed.

Last month, Amazon — one of the state’s largest employers, thanks to a growing network of fulfillment centers — announced that it would begin paying workers a $15 minimum wage. The mega-retailer’s higher wage went into effect earlier this month, affecting thousands of fulfillment center and customer-service workers in New Jersey.

Norcross: doing ‘the right thing’

Cooper’s new minimum-wage policy will go into effect on January 1, 2019, with patient-service representatives, food and nutrition staff, and critical-care technicians among the worker groups that will receive a raise, company officials said. Full-time, part-time and per-diem workers all stand to benefit from the increase and all other employee benefits and compensation policies will remain unchanged, Cooper said.

In addition to announcing Cooper’s higher minimum wage, Norcross said he would be sending letters to the leaders of other regional healthcare systems to encourage them to also enact wage increases for their lowest-paid workers. Cooper is a major player in the suburban Philadelphia healthcare sector, with Cooper University Hospital in Camden and a network of more than 100 outpatient centers located in the surrounding region.

“We have an absolute obligation, as the largest employer in both the City of Camden and Camden County, to do the right thing and lead the way on providing a quality wage for our workers,” Norcross said.

In response to the announcement, Murphy, a first-term Democrat, praised Cooper for “making a meaningful long-term investment in both its workforce and in the local economy.”

Murphy: Legislature ‘needs to act now’

“For the more than one million New Jersey workers who are not employed by Cooper Hospital and earn less than $15 an hour, the Legislature needs to act now to close the wage gap and give working families the boost they need to afford life’s essentials and build for a strong future,” Murphy said.

But just how big a factor Cooper’s new wage policy — and Norcross’s advocacy for an increase for other healthcare workers in the region — remains to be seen as discussions continue in Trenton about lifting the hourly rate for low-wage workers across the state.

Around this time last year, after Murphy prevailed in the 2017 gubernatorial election, it seemed minimum-wage legislation would be at the top of the agenda for the new governor and legislative leaders. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) have also voiced their support for a $15 minimum wage that, to cushion the blow on businesses, would be phased in over several years.

However, the three leaders have yet to get behind a bill they can all agree to support; exceptions for employees of small businesses or certain industries like agriculture apparently remain key sticking points.

Statewide $15 minimum could benefit 1M workers

After the announcement from Cooper yesterday, New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank that has been a leading advocate for the $15 minimum wage, issued a statement that said “it is past time for the Legislature to act on this issue and make sure that all workers in New Jersey earn a proper wage.”

The Trenton-based group has estimated that more than 1 million New Jersey residents would benefit from a $15 minimum wage, and nearly $4 billion would be pumped into the state economy by the workers whose hourly pay would be increased.

“Every corner of the state, from Camden County to Bergen County, requires a minimum wage at this level so workers can thrive, provide for their families, and contribute to the economy,” NJPP said.

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