Under Pressure From Left, New Jersey Democrats Back Off Vote to Gut Minimum Wage Law

After passing a $15 minimum wage, Democrats are pushing a bill that would suspend scheduled wage increases based on changes in unemployment or retail sales.

Workers protest for a raise in the minimum wage, at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., Nov. 29, 2016. Thousands of low-wage workers protested in cities across the U.S. on Tuesday to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the right to form a union, shutting down streets and disrupting service at some of the nation's busiest airports. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
New Jersey workers protest for a raise in the minimum wage on Nov. 29, 2016. Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux

Under pressure from activists, New Jersey Democrats on Wednesday postponed a vote on a bill that would almost certainly suspend the $15 minimum wage increase they signed into law in February.

Democrats passed the current minimum wage bill in 2016 under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed it. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed a later version of the bill into law in February, initiating the scheduled phase-in for the increase. Under the plan, the state would reach a $15 minimum wage for most workers by 2024. New Jersey is currently one of at least 30 states with minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, according to the Department of Labor.  

But a measure that advocates say puts the wage increase schedule in jeopardy was scheduled to come up for a vote in the state Senate’s labor committee on Thursday. Advocates from two New Jersey groups say that after they raised concerns with some of the bill’s sponsors, staffers assured them the vote had been postponed. On Wednesday morning, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders joined the the bill’s critics on Twitter, urging state senators to “stand on the side of workers and their families,” saying that the proposed measure was a “threat to their livelihood.” By Wednesday morning, the proposal had been removed from the committee’s Thursday schedule. It is unclear when the committee will take the bill up again.

Democratic state Sen. Vin Gopal, who introduced the bill in March with Republican state Sen. Kristin Corrado, responded to critics on Twitter — including Sanders — to say that he had asked for the bill to be removed from the committee schedule. Gopal added that he looked forward “to meeting with stakeholders in the weeks and months ahead on the positives and negatives of both bills.”

He had previously argued that the compromise bill was geared toward protecting small business owners. Under the new bill, scheduled minimum wage increases would be suspended based on unspecified increases in unemployment, and decreases in retail sales, or decreases of at least 2 percent in total state revenue, to be certified by the state treasurer. That means if unemployment increases slightly, or sales from retail dip for reasons unrelated to a tax or policy change, there would be no minimum wage increase. A dip of 2 percent in total state revenue is relatively unlikely. New Jersey’s unemployment is at an all-time low, so it’s almost certain to increase at some point. 

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association, one of the state’s most active lobbying groups, says it has also “long advocated” for Gopal’s compromise bill. The group has been active in fighting against minimum wage increases in the state. It published blog posts in November 2018 and January this year — before Murphy signed the minimum wage increase into law — advocating for suggestions that were later included in the current law, including exemptions for seasonal workers like farm workers, tipped workers, and small businesses of five or fewer employees.

New Jersey Democratic Rep. Donald Norcross announced Tuesday morning he was opposing the bill. Norcross, a co-sponsor of Sanders’s 2019 Raise the Wage Act, sent a letter to state Senate leadership urging them to vote against it, calling it an “irresponsible proposal that will harm both workers and businesses.” The premise of the bill is “illogical,” Norcross said. “If our economy were to slow for any reason, the first thing we should do is ensure that people at the lower end of the economic scale have family-sustaining wages that they can spend in their community. That’s exactly what our current wage law does.” (Donald is the brother of George Norcross, one of the state’s Democratic Party leaders.)

Gopal, a 34-year-old senator in his first term, has positioned himself among business-friendly Democrats. He took office last year and has been floated as a potential gubernatorial candidate. Gopal previously served on the board of directors for the then-Monmouth County Chamber of Commerce and was president of the Hazlet Business Owners Association. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

Local organizations like New Jersey Citizen Action, New Jersey Working Families, and New Jersey Policy Perspective have been engaged in a yearslong effort to get legislators to pass a $15 minimum wage that covers as many working families as possible. NJPP, a nonprofit research institute, has released reports demonstrating that raising the minimum wage would reduce poverty and funnel money back into the state’s economy. 

“I don’t really consider it a compromise bill. It’s a roll-back bill,” said Dena Jaborska, associate director at New Jersey Citizen Action, a grassroots organization working toward social, racial, and economic justice in the state. 

Jaborska was surprised to hear that Democrats would consider voting on the bill, given their track record on issues like earned sick leave policy and expansion of paid family leave. “The legislature used to agree it was a terrible idea that people at minimum wage lived in poverty,” she said. “Not really sure why they would then go back and negate their own previous action, which they did victory laps and celebrated when they passed it.”

The legislature is just about to start working on anti-wage theft legislation too, Jaborska said. That’s why the movement on Gopal’s bill was all the more puzzling — voting on it would cast a shadow on those efforts. 

As it stands, the existing law already includes provisions that delay minimum wage increases for farm workers, tipped workers, and workers at firms with five or fewer employees. Because of those carveouts, NJPP President Brandon McKoy said, Democrats’ arguments that the Gopal bill is meant to appeal to small business interests don’t hold up. “I think that’s a spin,” he said. “Business interests had their opportunity to negotiate and what they got out of negotiating the bill was more carveouts.” 

“Considering the cost of living in New Jersey, and New York has gone to a $15 minimum wage more quickly than we did, if we want to stay competitive with New York in attracting workers, we can’t be entertaining a process that would possibly further delay increases,” McKoy said. 

The timing of the vote on the Gopal bill, just after last week’s elections in the state Assembly, raised questions for Sam Finkelstein, a progressive activist in New Jersey and law student at Seton Hall University. “They made a ton of noise about how great it was that they passed this minimum wage bill,” he said. “And then the second that people actually go and vote [in last week’s general election], and they’re their safest, then all of a sudden they put this stuff up.”

Jaborska noted that state senators won’t face reelection until 2021, yet Democrats are weighing legislation that would undo their progress in the state. “It is the silly season in New Jersey.”

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