Burlington County Times

Legislative Leader Unveils Bill To Hike NJ's Minimum Wage To $15 By 2024

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin introduced the measure on Thursday, ending more than a year of waiting since Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders vowed it would be a top priority for 2018.

Burlington County Times — December 6, 2018

By David Levinsky

TRENTON — After months of backroom discussions, the leader of the New Jersey Assembly finally unveiled a bill to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour for most workers by 2024.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin introduced the measure on Thursday, ending more than a year of waiting since Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders vowed it would be a top priority for 2018.

New Jersey's minimum wage is now at $8.60 but is scheduled to automatically rise to $8.85 on Jan. 1. Under Coughlin's bill, numbered Assembly Bill 15, would raise the wage floor to $9.50 an hour on July 1 next year and then to $11 on Jan. 1, 2020. It would then increase $1.15 per year each year on Jan. 1 until it reaches $15 in 2024.

The increases would apply to most minimum wage earners. However, farm workers, employees under 18, seasonal workers and employees at businesses with fewer than 10 employees would get increases at a slower rate, so that their minimum wage does not reach $15 an hour until 2029.

Tipped workers such as bartenders and restaurant servers will also be guaranteed $15 an hour pay by 2024, although the legislation maintains the current system that mixes both tips and salary.

Currently, tipped workers earn at minimum a $2.13 a hour wage but their employer must make up the difference between what they receive in pay and tips if it falls below minimum wage. That would continue under Coughlin's bill, but the wage employers are required to pay them would rise to $5.13 by 2024.

The bill's introduction marks the first significant action on minimum wage this year, even though Murphy made raising it to $15 a significant part of his gubernatorial campaign and pledged to take action on the issue early this year. But while Murphy and legislative leaders were able to quickly advance and sign into law bills mandating equal pay and paid sick leave for all workers, as well as a host of other progressive priorities, they have yet to tackle the wage issue.

Part of the holdup appears to have surrounded disagreement over whether to exempt some workers from the wage floor.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who led the last effort to raise the minimum wage in 2013, has spoken in favor of some form of "carve-outs" for farm workers, seasonal employees and young workers or interns, while Murphy has called for the $15 floor to be applied to all workers in the state.

Coughlin's bill appears to be an attempt to forge a compromise with a slower phase in for some workers.

In a statement, the Assembly speaker said the legislation is intended to help the working poor better afford living in a high-cost state like New Jersey, while also taking into consideration concerns from New Jersey's small business community.

"Raising the minimum wage will not only lift up the current generation of low-wage workers but ensure fairness for future generations and tackle issues of hunger and inequality," Coughlin said.

Sweeney praised the bill, calling it a "smart and progressive plan" to move the state to a $15 an hour minimum wage, but he also said it would be a "working document."

"We will work with legislators, advocates and others to finalize a plan that will be approved by both houses of the Legislature and signed into law," he said. "We want to get input from others, but we can now do that with a good proposal that achieves our shared goal of getting to $15 in a responsible way."

Murphy did not immediately comment on the measure, but the liberal advocacy group, New Jersey Citizen Action, and the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective both criticized it due to its carve-outs.

"This bill is an affront to the hundreds of thousands of workers who will be left behind from earning the full minimum wage and a chance to better support themselves and their families," said Brandon McKoy, New Jersey Policy Perspective's director of government and public affairs. "Creating new exemptions in the minimum wage runs counter to the notion of equal pay for equal work and will further exacerbate income inequality by creating a sub-minimum wage underclass."

"By carving out youth, farm workers, small business employees and seasonal workers with a much longer phase-in, New Jersey would be creating a permanent underclass," New Jersey Citizen Action Executive Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye said. "The workers carved out in this proposal are already some of the most vulnerable workers, ripe for exploitation. The people of New Jersey deserve better, we deserve a bill that deliver a phased-in $15 minimum wage with no carve outs."

Business advocates have urged lawmakers to use caution on the issue due to its likely impact, particularly on small businesses.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association released the findings of its business outlook survey Thursday morning, noting that 66 percent of the owners surveyed indicated that raising the minimum wage to $15 would impact their business, including 39 percent who specified the change would be "significant."

The association indicated that 32 percent of the businesses said they would likely raise their prices to offset the wage hikes, 26 would reduce staff and 24 percent would reduce hours, while 13 percent planned to increase automation.

In a statement, NJBIA President and CEO Michele N. Siekerka said Coughlin's bill addresses some of businesses concerns, particularly with the steady phase-in of the increases, but she said the proposed exceptions do not go far enough to address business concerns about the expected impact.

She said the association would like the legislation to include a provision requiring an economic analysis of the increases and the option for the state to freeze the wage hikes during a major economic downturn or natural disaster.

Raising the minimum wage has been a thorny issue in the state for a while now.

Two years ago, lawmakers approved legislation to boost the wage floor to $15 by 2021, but then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, citing the expected impact on small businesses.

Democrats originally planned to put a constitutional amendment to make the change on the 2017 election ballot, but ended up scuttling that plan in favor of waiting until a new governor was elected.

Shortly after Murphy was elected last year, he headlined a news conference at the Statehouse with Sweeney, Coughlin and Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden, where they each promised to make raising the minimum wage a top priority.

Despite the delays, Norcross, who has pressed for a federal minimum wage hike, said Thursday he was encouraged to see the process begin in the state Legislature.

"We know that New Jersey working families need and deserve a raise. South Jersey businesses like Cooper, Jefferson and Virtua Health are leading the way; they all recently announced they'll be raising the wage to at least $15 an hour because they know the current floor is far too low," Norcross said. "And business groups, employers and working families agree — America's workers deserve a fair day's pay for a hard day's work."

Virtua, which is believed to be Burlington County's largest private sector employer with hospitals in Mount Holly, Evesham and Voorhees, plus numerous other health care facilities across South Jersey, announced Wednesday it was raising its minimum hourly wage to $15.15 an hour beginning Jan. 1.

Cooper University Health Care announced in November it would raise its minimum wage to $15 starting in 2019.

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