After years of advocacy, New Jersey just joined a handful of other states in a bold policy: instituting a $15 minimum wage. Once signed into law, the legislation will make New Jersey just the fourth state in the country — after California, Massachusetts and New York — to mandate a wage floor that high.
“It’s taken years to get to this place, and we’re really proud of the fact that it’s almost to the finish line,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a grassroots political organization that backs progressive lawmakers.
In 2013, New Jersey voters approved a measure to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour from the federal minimum of $7.25, and to automatically increase it each year after that. Advocates eventually began pushing for an increase to $15 an hour, particularly after the Fight for $15 strikes and protests began taking off. But they encountered hurdles in their way. Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill passed by the legislature in 2016, becoming the first governor to veto a $15 minimum wage. New Jersey Working Families Alliance then tried to get the legislature to move the issue to the ballot and put it in front of voters, but didn’t succeed.
But advocates didn’t give up. In the meantime, the group worked with a number of counties and cities in the state to raise the minimum wages for their own government employees to $15 an hour, since they aren’t able to raise minimum wages for all employees. That was a way to “build the momentum” for the issue, Mejia said.
Then starting in 2015, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance spotted an opportunity in the upcoming race to replace Chris Christie as governor. In a gubernatorial primary, there exists “an opportunity to help shape what issues the contenders are going to focus on,” Mejia said.
So, the group brought together a coalition of partners, including unions, the New Jersey Education Association, racial justice advocates, immigrant rights organizations, environmental groups and clergy members, and it created a platform that included raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as well as paid sick leave and stricter wage theft enforcement. The coalition then encouraged its partners to mention the same set of issues in their conversations with the gubernatorial hopefuls. “We know when we work in collaboration we can create an echo chamber for our issues,” Mejia noted. The advocates didn’t just speak directly with the contenders, but also authored op-eds, made videos of workers telling their stories of not making enough to live on, and spoke at candidate forums about the issue.
The group was looking to “inject [the issue] so deeply into both the conversations being had by potential candidates and by our partners and by regular New Jersyans” that it would “create the inevitability,” Mejia said. “That’s frankly how we won.” All of the Democratic candidates pledged that raising the wage would be a priority, and when current Gov. Phil Murphy won, he included it in his agenda for his first 100 days.
The issue didn’t move right away, however. “Politics gets in the way, and we had additional work to do to unstick it,” Mejia said. It took convincing members of the state senate and assembly to move forward on legislation, including speaking with their constituents and asking those constituents to contact their lawmakers directly. “Just continue to create a constant drumbeat for action,” Mejia explained.
The bill sitting on Governor Murphy’s desk is a victory, but not a complete one. While most New Jersey workers will be ensured a $15 minimum wage by 2024, seasonal workers and those at businesses with five or fewer employees won’t get that guarantee until 2026. Agricultural workers will be guaranteed a wage of $12.50 an hour by 2024, at which point the state Departments of Labor and Agriculture will assess whether further increases are needed. New Jersey Working Families Alliance is “confident,” Mejia said, that wage increases for farmworkers will increase at that point to reach $15 an hour.
For some advocates, perhaps most disappointing is that tipped employees were left out of the $15 wage entirely. There is a silver lining: “New Jersey has not … really considered tipped workers before under its minimum wage,” Teófilo Reyes, research director with the New Jersey chapter of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which organizes restaurant workers and advocates to get rid of the tipped wage, pointed out. State tipped workers have until this point only ever been guaranteed the federal rate of $2.13 an hour. “Now at least they have earned recognition in the minimum wage bill, so that’s an advance.”
But while tipped workers, such as restaurant servers and nail salon employees, will be guaranteed a base wage of at least $8.04 an hour by 2030, with a narrower gap between their minimum wage and that of regular employees, their minimum wage will still remain lower than non-tipped workers, despite the efforts of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and other advocates to ensure the same wage for all.
The current legislation, with all of its exclusions, is expected to be signed by Gov. Murphy on Monday. But Mejia’s organization is already starting “phase two” of its advocacy to push for tipped workers to make the same wage as regular employees and to increase it for farmworkers. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is also examining potential paths forward to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees. One immediate change Mejia’s group will seek is to get the state’s wage board to narrow the currently wide universe of workers that can be classified as tipped employees, thus guaranteeing more of them the full $15 wage. It will also push to include farm workers in the state’s overtime regulations and the right to form a union, from which they are currently exempt. And there will be opportunities to change minds in the state assembly races later this year, as well as the governor’s race in 2021.
“Where there’s a political will, there’s always a way,” Mejia noted. “The job is creating the political will.”
Efforts like those in New Jersey to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour have reverberated beyond state borders. Earlier this month, Democrats in the new Congress introduced a bill that would raise the federal wage floor that high, despite the fact that just a few years ago, party leadership backed smaller increases. But if New Jersey fails to include tipped workers in that higher wage, it risks being left behind. The congressional bill would get rid of the lower wage for tipped employees, as eight states have already done, and ensure all workers are guaranteed the same minimum pay.