Senate Budget Committee passes minimum wage increase bill

TRENTON – The Senate Budget Committee today released the bill to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 and link future increases to the cost of living.

In a landscape politically charged by the president’s re-election and environmentally damaged by the Sandy superstorm, the bill’s support and opposition fell largely along partisan lines.

The bill was released 7-6 with Sen. Jeff Van Drew crossing the aisle to vote with the GOP. He said this was one of the hardest votes he ever has had to make.

The first tourist season after the hurricane is not the right time to place this expense on businesses, Sen. Jennifer Beck said. She said some businesses are barely going to survive.

Democrats, however, championed S3 as long overdue and pointed out that the state’s lowest-paid workers would funnel the money right back into the economy by paying for necessities.

Republicans argued this would be a jobs-killer and not spur the economy as intended. Absent the tie to the cost of living, the bill might have had GOP backing, some of that party’s members said today.

But Senate President Steve Sweeney said this is about helping the working poor in this state.  “We’re going to give the governor an opportunity to do the right thing and sign this bill,’’ he said.

If he does not, Sweeney said, the Legislature has another course: constitutional amendment.

Sweeney said he has compromised before on other issues, but he will not compromise on this as a core value. He said the working poor cannot continue to be denied a raise every few years. “This is not something I can allow to slip away.”

Sweeney pointed out that while the business community is philosophically opposed to a CPI link to the wage hike, if one had been put in place years ago then there would be no necessity now for this bill.

In support were Sens. Paul Sarlo, Brian Stack, Sandra Cunningham, Teresa Ruiz, Jeff Van Drew, Linda Greenstein and Sweeney and Sen. Donald Norcross, who were sitting in for Sens. Loretta Weinberg and Nellie Pou.

Republican Sens. Kevin O’Toole, Anthony Bucco, Jennifer Beck, Steve Oroho and Joseph Pennacchio opposed the bill.

A fiscal estimate done in April by the Office of Legislative Services said it could not determine the full effect such a hike would have.

It did point out that counties and municipalities would incur increased labor costs, particularly for part-time seasonal workers. But the effect would vary greatly from county to county.

Currently, a full-time worker, earning the minimum wage, makes $15,080 per year. If this bill passed,  that same worker will earn $17,680 a year, an increase of $2,600 per year.

The panel heard from a woman who said through an interpreter that she earns only $228 a week doing temporary staffing.  “We line up every day,’’ she said, “sometimes they send us to work, sometimes they don’t.”

In addition, she said such workers receive neither health insurance nor paid holidays.

There also was a wide variety of labor, emergency services, academic, and other groups supporting the bill, many of which appeared at a press conference earlier in a show of solidarity.

Former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan of Americans for Prosperity opposed the bill, arguing that New Jersey’s growing income gap – reportedly 11th in the nation – is due to policies such as the one being considered today that kill jobs.

“What is going to elevate people out of poverty is creating jobs,’’ Lonegan said. “We’re hurting the economic incentive to hire people,” he said.

This bill will take jobs from teenagers, for instance, because it will be more cost-effective for employers to do the work themselves, he said.

But Sweeney responded that the same arguments were heard in 2005, that the sky would fall, but the economy was not destroyed, it got stronger.

But Sen. Anthony Bucco responded later: “It doesn’t fall with one bill, Senate president. It’s cumulative.”

Also in opposition, Joe Marino of Sun Valley Orchards said the bill would hurt their labor-intensive fresh produce industry.  He said their business already bears substantial costs, paying for housing of a temporary work force that they depend on.

Another example in opposition came from Steel Pier owner Anthony Catanoso who said they have undergone a three-year expansion and pay a little above minimum wage with most of their work force, rising from 250 to 300 workers last year and looking to go up to 450 this year.

But the minimum wage bill would cost them a quarter of a million-dollar increase whether they see new business or not due to staffing regulations.

Stefanie Riehl of the N.J. Business and Industry Association and the Minimum Wage Coalition said the new factor is recovery from Sandy. She said employers are struggling to make payroll and in some cases have not reopened.

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