NJ Spotlight

Gov. Phil Murphy addresses a press conference yesterday on raising New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15.


Gov. Phil Murphy said he’ll meet tomorrow with top legislative leaders from his own party and a new bill that would hike the state’s minimum hourly rate to $15 for most workers by 2024 will likely be a key topic of discussion.

The governor stopped short of endorsing the legislation, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) while speaking to reporters yesterday after he toured a manufacturing facility in Parsippany.

A key sticking point highlighted by Murphy is language in Coughlin’s bill that would keep a sizable cohort of workers — including seasonal workers, farmworkers, teenagers and employees of many small businesses — from getting to the $15 threshold until 2029. The same language has been faulted by liberal groups who make up a significant part of Murphy’s political base.

“I’m trying to be constructive here because I do like the fact that there’s movement,” Murphy said. But he added: “It takes too long, and the cohort is too large.”

The governor’s position on the minimum-wage bill sets the stage for the latest round of high-stakes negotiations in Trenton between the first-term Democrat and the top legislative leaders from his own party. Murphy, Coughlin, and Senate President Steve Sweeney nearly shut down state government earlier this year before hashing out an 11th-hour agreement on the state budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

Major source of intrigue

Their working relationship continues to be a major source of intrigue in the State House. While Coughlin and Sweeney are once again signaling a willingness to work out differences with the governor at the negotiating table, it remains to be seen just how much ground they will be willing to give as they seek to bridge a gap between Murphy’s liberal agenda and a Legislature that’s dominated by more moderate Democrats.

Coughlin said in a statement yesterday that his bill is a “a concrete first step” and that he is looking to “further our discussion on minimum wage” when he meets tomorrow with Murphy and Sweeney.

New Jersey’s minimum hourly wage will be $8.85 on January 1. But anti-poverty advocates have long sought a $15 minimum wage as a way to help low-income workers survive in a state that is becoming increasingly unaffordable and to combat overall income inequality.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester) was the prime sponsor of legislation sent to then-Gov. Chris Christie in 2016 that would have gradually increased the minimum wage for all New Jersey workers to $15 by 2021. But Christie vetoed that measure and Sweeney and other legislative Democrats did not have enough support to muster an override before Christie left office earlier this year.

The bill put forward by Coughlin last week would also bring the minimum wage gradually to $15, with an initial hike to $9.50 on July 1, 2019. The rate would then go up to $11 on January 1, 2020 and be increased by $1.15 each subsequent year until it reached $15 in 2024.

But for seasonal workers, farmworkers, teenagers and the employees of businesses with fewer than 10 workers, things would happen more slowly: an initial increase to $10.10 would happen on January 1, 2020; to $10.35 on January 1, 2022; $10.70 on January 1, 2023; $11.10 on January 1, 2024; $11.70 on January 1, 2025; $12.45 on January 1, 2026; $13.20 on January 1, 2027 and $14.10 on January 1, 2028. It would only hit $15 on January 1, 2029.

Governor: Carveout of workers is too large

It’s that slower path that has upset liberal groups that have been advocating for the $15 minimum wage, including New Jersey Policy Perspective and New Jersey Working Families. While speaking to reporters yesterday at Earth Friendly Products, a company that already pays its employees a $17 minimum wage, Murphy echoed their concerns. He also referenced a proposal that his office sent legislative staff in May that reportedly called for some carveouts in a nod to lawmakers’ concerns, but only for farmworkers and teenage employees of seasonal businesses.

“That path can’t be too slow, and it can’t be too large a group of workers,” Murphy said yesterday.

Still, the governor expressed some optimism that the three leaders would be able to work out their policy differences and suggested staffers have already been engaging in productive discussions.

“Hopefully we can move this ball forward,” the governor said.

Sweeney, a private-sector union leader, has praised Coughlin’s bill while also calling it “a working document.” During an event Friday hosted by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, he said the Speaker’s legislation “did an outstanding job of striking a balance” between the interests of business and workers.

A spokesman for Sweeney declined to comment on Murphy’s latest comments yesterday, and the statement issued by Coughlin did not directly address the concerns raised by the governor.

“The minimum wage bill I have introduced in the Assembly is a concrete first step to addressing the inadequate rate of our State’s current minimum wage,” Coughlin said. “I will continue to work with the members of my caucus to produce a balanced bill that is fair to workers and respects the business community.”

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