New Jersey hikes state minimum wage to $15 by 2024
Democrats who swept Republicans out of power in the Capitol in Trenton, New Jersey have raised the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour. | whyy.org

TRENTON, N.J.—By overwhelming, but virtually party-line, votes the Democratic-run New Jersey legislature passed, and new Democratic Gov. Philip Murphy signed, legislation increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.

Yet not all was sweetness and light in the legislative session in Trenton, despite several big wins for workers in the legislature.

Farm workers, many of whom toil in the orchards and truck farms of southern and central New Jersey, were shorted in the overall minimum wage hike, Bruce Goldstein of Washington-based Farmworker Justice reported. Instead, their minimum in 2024 will be $12.50, and that’s below their average wage right now.

And while lawmakers approved the minimum wage hike, paid family leave and a “responsible contractor” bill covering securities purchases and other investments by the state, Murphy vetoed that one. He said it would be administratively difficult and might run afoul of state mandates for best possible returns on investment.

Nevertheless, the pro-worker outcomes cheered the state AFL-CIO, which lobbied hard for all of them.

The minimum wage hike is important. The federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, hasn’t risen in a decade, stymied by Republican-run Congresses in Washington. Last month, after retaking the U.S. House last fall, Democrats – with low-paid workers and union leaders cheering them on – reintroduced a $15 minimum, one half of the “$15 and a union” campaign.

As a result, New Jersey joins a long list of cities and states that got fed up with waiting for Washington pols to act and raised minimum wages on their own. They include Chicago, all the states of the Pacific Coast, the Twin Cities, Illinois, Michigan, New York and New York City, D.C., and even some lightly unionized Southern states.

“We sincerely thank legislative leaders, sponsors and all the legislators that voted in favor of two longtime priorities for the New Jersey State AFL-CIO – raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and reforming the state’s paid family leave program,” said state AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech. The state House vote was 52-25 and the Senate vote was 23-16, with two Democrats in each chamber voting against raising the minimum.

“For too long, these workers have been trapped in jobs that pay poverty-level wages while businesses and corporations profit levels are at historic highs. Income inequality is a tremendous problem in our society and passing this bill is a morally responsible way to help address this problem,” he added

But it doesn’t wholly help the farm workers, many of them seasonal workers and many of them Hispanic-Americans who harvest fresh fruits and vegetables in New Jersey in the summer and citrus fruit in Florida in the winter. Estimates of their numbers start at 20,000.

“Under the bill, farmworkers are not treated like most other workers who would receive the $15 minimum wage by 2024. Nor are they treated like the small-business’s employees or seasonal workers whose minimum wage will rise to $15 by 2026.  Farm operators, no matter how large, would only need to pay their farmworkers $12.50 an hour by 2024. After that, government officials would decide how farmworkers are treated,” a Farmworker Justice fact sheet says.

“The governor should send the legislation back and tell the politicians to treat farm workers equally with other workers,” says Goldstein, whose organization has heavy union support. “They work in a dangerous job to put food on our tables.  Inflicting sub-poverty wages on farmworker families for the next five years is unconscionable,”

New Jersey’s paid family leave bill, which passed by even larger margins than the minimum wage hike, also puts the state ahead of the federal government. Federal law, signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993, lets parents employed by firms with at least 50 workers take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborns and infants, with the guarantee they get their jobs back afterward. But only about 40 percent of those eligible can afford unpaid leave.

Federal paid family leave legislation, pushed by the unpaid leave’s author and sponsor, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has been bottled up on Capitol Hill by the GOP, too.

New Jersey’s new paid leave bill “would double paid leave to 12 weeks, increase the benefit amount from two-thirds of a claimant’s average weekly wage to 70 percent of that wage with a higher maximum threshold, and also would expand job protection to businesses with 30 employees or more. The current protection level is 50 employees,” an AFL-CIO fact sheet says.

Though Murphy vetoed the responsible investors bill, Wowkanech hopes Murphy, the Division of Investment and lawmakers can work on how to implement its goals administratively.

“Specific requirements in the bill included basic, core labor standards such as the promotion of responsible contractors, the exclusion of potential investment due to wage theft, the failure to pay prevailing wages and the exclusion of potential investors if they plan to privatize public sector jobs,” the state AFL-CIO fact sheet said.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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