Top Assembly Democrats brought the case for a $15 minimum wage to the Assembly Labor Committee Thursday, addressing concerns from conservative lawmakers that a wage hike would motivate employers to slow down hiring and automate more jobs. The bill from Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) follows the letter of the Senate version from President Steve Sweeeney (D-3), and would have the minimum wage increase from $8.38 and hour to $10.10 in 2017. Gradual annual increases would see the minimum wage reach that $15 target as early as 2021.
Prieto echoed Sweeney’s sentiment from earlier this week, saying in his testimony that the 2013 ballot question amending the state constitution to raise the minimum wage and tie it to the Consumer Price Index did not go far enough.
“Even though we did some reforms a few years back, we even did a constitutional amendment, we set a floor, not a ceiling,” Prieto said. “As the middle class has eroded, we ned to put some money in these people’s pockets. It will also help employers have a phase-in period.”
Assemblyman and fellow primary sponsor John Wisniewski (D-19) argued before the committee that further increases will help to bolster consumer spending and lessen workers’ dependence on public assistance to cover basic necessities like food and rent.
“An increase in the minimum wage will enable those people to ween themselves off that dependency,” Wisneiwski said. “It will save us money in the long run. It will make the economy stronger, and it will help all of us.”
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-26) expressed concern that chain restaurants like Applebees, which he said have introduced automated ordering through iPads since that 2013 amendment, would rush to cut costs by automating more jobs.
“I don’t think we stop the march of technology, but you can certainly speed it up,” Webber said. “And when you raise the cost of employing individuals, you’re going to give people incentives to find technology to replace them even faster.”
Wisniewski and Prieto argued that the imperative to cut costs is a constant for business owners, and that the rush to automate predated the 2013 increase. Wisniewski said that taxpayers are effectively subsidizing employers’ ability to keep both wages and prices down.
“Since they are employing technology, this is not an impact to them,” Wisniewski said. “They’re going to continue to do that. They’re still gong to need people to take the food out, they’re still going to need people to clean the dishes. They can’t automate that.
“Without raising the minimum wage, the costs that are being implied that we will have to pick up — well we’re picking them up now. But we’re picking them up through our taxes, as opposed to picking them up through the bill we pay at the restaurant.”
With Governor Chris Christie likely to veto the bill if it succeeds in both houses, Sweeney has said that he will again put the increase to voters in the form of another ballot question. The previous constitutional amendment passed with a strong 61 percent of voters in favor.