Dem leaders in state to push for minimum wage hike

| 15 Feb 2012 | 11:20

    TRENTON — An hourly employee in New Jersey who grosses $290 a week working full-time for the minimum wage would earn an extra $50 if the state raises the rate as proposed. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Senate President Steve Sweeney are leading the charge in the new legislative session to raise the minimum wage by $1.25 per hour, from $7.25 to $8.50, then tie future annual increases to economic performance data. It would be the first minimum wage increase in three years, and would go against a December recommendation form the state Minimum Wage Advisory Commission, headed by Labor secretary Hal Wirths, that the rate remain unchanged for . The commission's recommendation was not unanimous. Two of the five commissioners dissented, saying the minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living and should be increased to allow more minimum wage-earning families to live above the poverty level. Gov. Chris Christie said he would listen to arguments to raise the wage floor, but he hasn't been swayed so far. “I'm not inclined to do that," Christie said while taking questions after an event in Camden last week. “But, as with everything, I'll sit and listen to the arguments on both sides. I don't think Sheila Oliver is going to fall over in shock that she hears me say this." New Jersey's minimum wage is the same as the federal rate. Eighteen states have higher requirements than the federal government, four states' rates are lower and five states have no minimum wage law at all. Among neighboring states, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware all require a minimum wage of $7.25; Connecticut requires $8.25. Only Oregon and Washington would have higher minimum wages if New Jersey's rate is raised to $8.50. In New Jersey, nearly 40,000 workers are paid the minimum wage, though the Labor Department doesn't keep track of how many work full-time. It does know, though, that about 23,000 of the minimum-wage workers are between 22 and 64 years old. The business community is opposed. They fear higher labor costs would lead to less hiring and a stalled economic recovery. “We would be immediately isolated in the region as the most expensive state in which to create new jobs and the opportunities will flow to the other states," said Laurie Ehlbeck, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “We strongly urge the governor to resist raising labor costs in the middle of an unemployment crisis." Oliver is expected to point out during her Assembly reorganization speech rescheduled for Tuesday that the Minimum Wage Commission in 2009 under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine recommended raising the rate to $8.50 per hour, while establishing automatic annual adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index. “Some people will call this a burden on businesses," Oliver is expected to say in prepared remarks, “but recent studies by the National Employment Law Project show minimum wage increases do not cost jobs." She also cited a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago finding that every dollar increase in the minimum wage “means each family with minimum-wage earners spends an additional $3,200 a year." Sweeney, who sponsored the last minimum wage hike legislation, said he prefiled a bill to be considered in the weeks ahead. He said the indexing component — establishing annual increases of pennies each year based on the Consumer Price Index or some other economic measure — would help avoid “sticker shock'' to the business community. Sweeney said he favors annual index-based increases “so you don't fall so far behind you have to do a big increase the business community can't afford." He said with New Jersey being such an expensive state to live in, raising the minimum wage gives workers on the low end of the wage scale additional workplace dignity, and a fighting chance to escape a life of poverty.