N.J. congressman launches fight to raise U.S. minimum wage to $15 an hour

By Michelle Caffrey | For NJ.com
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on January 14, 2016

Gynene Jonas, of Sicklerville, speaks about the struggles she faces raising her daughter on low income at Congressman Donald Norcross' press conference in Camden County College's automotive workshop about his plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023, Jan. 14, 2016


GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP — When temperatures began to drop this winter, Gynene Jonas had to make a choice.

The certified nursing assistant, who works full-time taking care of the sick and elderly at a nursing home, only had enough money left over after paying bills to buy one winter coat.

It went to her six-year-old daughter, and Jonas is braving the cold.

The story the Sicklerville single mother shared on Thursday morning was just one of three real-life examples highlighted by Congressman Donald Norcross (D-1 of Camden) on Thursday morning as he launched an ambitious legislative effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023, an initiative he called the "Fight for 15."

"Something is fundamentally wrong when hard-working Americans go to work and they can't pull themselves out of poverty," said Norcross after he laid out statistics that show a single person working at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 full-time, 52 weeks a year, who takes no holidays or sick days, still falls below the federal poverty line.

While Jonas makes more than N.J.'s minimum wage of $8.35, she still earns just half of what's deemed a living wage for a family of two in the state, and said she would see big benefits from Norcross' bill.

"It's just not easy," said Jonas. Tears streamed down her face as she talked about the anxiety of consistent financial instability. "This increase, I think it would help a lot of people."

Under the legislation, Norcross — who represents Camden County as well as parts of Gloucester and Burlington counties — is proposing, the federal minimum wage would bump up 75 cents in the first year to $8 an hour and increase $1 a year until it hits $15.

From that point forward, it would be linked with the Consumer Price Index, a metric used to measure inflation, and any small businesses that raise their wages ahead of schedule by $1 more an hour would be rewarded with a payroll tax credit of 50 cents to the $1.

"This is the floor, the basement, so someone can have the dignity of taking care of themselves," said Norcross.

While his goals are lofty — Norcross has little if any power to get a vote on the bill as a member of the minority party — they resonated with the elected officials, leaders from religious and non-profit organizations, job trainees and other members of the workforce who gathered at his press conference, set in the college's automotive workshop. He held a round-table discussion on the issue with struggling workers and those in job training programs that followed. 

"[Increasing the minimum wage] would make the world of a difference," said Katherine Underwood. The Brooklawn mother of one has worked her way up to assistant manager at the retail store she's worked at for more than 9 years, but is still making just $1.30 more than cashiers who were hired as holiday help.

"I'm working really hard, and I can't get ahead," said Underwood, the sole breadwinner in the family following her husband's battle with cancer last year.

While opponents argue an increase would hurt job growth and negatively impact those who earn above minimum wage, Norcross and other supporters of raising the minimum wage maintain that the increase would be the "rising tide that lifts all boats" by boosting the country's overall wage growth, which has remained relatively stagnate while other economic indicators, as well as corporate earnings, have made significant rebounds in recent years.

"If we don't do something, the middle class is going to be eliminated," said Gloucester County NAACP President Loretta Winters. "We can't survive that way. The middle class is the engine of this country."

The congressman also pointed to studies that show the average CEO in 1965 made 20 times more than their company's employees, a difference that has increased 300-fold in the 50 years that followed.

"We're changing the level of the playing field so those work hard can't make it, but those who get the tax breaks are making it 300-times more than what they used to," said Norcross.

While he championed New Jersey's ability to raise the state minimum to $8.35 via a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2013 that also ties it to the consumer price index, he said his focus is now on income inequality throughout the country.

"That was good for New Jersey, and now I'm in a different position," said Norcross

While that position includes growing clout in his party — Norcross serves as Assistant Whip and sits on both the House Armed Services Committee and House Budget Committee — it still remains a difficult one in the overall Congressional landscape controlled by Republicans.

"Things take time," Norcross said in regards to the bill's ability to progress in the House.

In defending the bill's viability, Norcross highlighted the small business tax credits, saying they're "trying to make it work from both ends," and stressed that an increase in the minimum wage would decrease the amount of people relying on government assistance for food and housing.

He also argued that the increase in wages for a population that is more inclined to spend extra income on living expenses would inject more money into the overall economy.

"Henry Ford understood that if you don't pay your employees enough, they can't afford to buy your products," said Norcross, who will introduce the bill in coming weeks and use the hashtag #RaiseTheWage to promote the initiative.

While Jonas said she looks forward to seeing progress on the issue, she's focused on continuing to work every day for her daughter, and when her paycheck comes in on Friday, she plans on finally buying herself a winter coat.

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