Minimum Wage Hike Battle Back on the Agenda in Trenton

By David Cruz

The push for a $15 an hour minimum wage will get a boost from legislation that Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he will introduce. Like the effort that raised the wage to just over $8 an hour and tied it to the cost of living in 2013, this bill would face a likely veto by the governor, but the coalition gathered at today’s press conference said they’re ready for a fight.

“If we put money in the pockets of the people who are going to spend it, it’s going to make our economy better and that’s what this is all about,” Prieto said.

Right now, a 40-hour week at the current minimum wage in New Jersey is roughly $17,000 a year. That’s $34,000 for a couple. Give them two children between 1 and 5 years old, and this is what their month looks like:

Their gross income is $2,800 per month. Their monthly expenses, conservatively, look like this: $1,300 for an average two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. Feeding a family of four, with no trips to Mickey D’s — $650. Transportation for two working adults — about $550. Assuming their jobs don’t provide health care, which is likely — that’s about $500. Child care — $300. Add miscellaneous expenses like utilities, a phone, clothes and toiletries — that’s another $400. Three thousand seven hundred dollars in expenses, $2,800 in income. That’s the math.

“If I make $15 an hour I will survive a little better, but it’s not enough,” explains Maximo Rodriguez, a custodian. “I wish we got $20, $25 an hour because we make nothing. Once you go to buy something, some merchandise in the supermarket or to the store, whatever, clothes, you’ll see how far the money goes.”

Unions like 32BJ and organizations like Working Families New Jersey have been pushing for a raise in the minimum wage, organizing fast food restaurant employees, custodians and, most dramatically, airport workers. Last month Analilia Mejia was among 10 demonstrators who were arrested at the airport.

“I was really worried about telling my mother and I didn’t tell her until afterwards when we were processed and released and I told her I got arrested and I have this court date and I didn’t want to tell you,” recalled Mejia, who is executive director of New Jersey Working Families. “She asked, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘We’re fighting to raise wages, we’re fighting for people like you mommy,’ and she said, ‘That’s the right thing to do and I’m so proud of you.’”

But business and industry are, as expected, opposed to a hike, and they have one powerful ally in the State House.

“It’s an embarrassment that the minimum wage is in our constitution,” is what Gov. Chris Christie told a gathering of business people late last year.

With opponents like that, supporters will likely need to go to the public again, as they did in 2013, to get the raise they want, no?

“Let’s walk before we run,” said Prieto. “Let’s get it through the process and we’ll make those decisions when we get there.”

The speaker says a bill will be introduced and be in committee very soon and who knows who may be in the governor’s office and what kind of political mood he or she may be in once a bill makes it through the Legislature.