On Nov. 5, New Jersey voters will do more than elect a governor. They will have the final say in the state’s minimum-wage debate.The ballot question – approved by the state Assembly in February – asks voters whether they approve of amending the State Constitution to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour – with annual adjustments to reflect cost of living increases. If approved, it will mark the first time the state has raised the minimum wage through an amendment to the State Constitution.
A Rutgers-Eagleton poll taken in September indicates that support for a minimum wage hike is wide and deep, with 76 percent of all registered voters backing the ballot question. More than half of Christie supporters favor the amendment despite the governor’s opposition.
We spoke with Janice R. Fine, an associate professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, about the ongoing minimum wage war that has been brewing in New Jersey and how the decision ended up in the hands of voters.
Rutgers Today: Is bipartisan support for a minimum wage increase unusual in New Jersey?
Fine: “Historically, New Jerseyans have supported increases in minimum wage. There’s this sense that if people work hard, they should be able to keep their families out of poverty. There is an understanding that this is not currently the case.”
Rutgers Today: New Jersey has not raised its minimum wage since 2005. Why did this question make it on the ballot this year?
Fine: “I think it’s frustration at a time when the numbers of low-wage workers are increasing and the number of occupations that pay so poorly are surging, that something has to be done. Many saw putting this on the ballot as a last resort. We want legislators to legislate – that’s why we elect them – but when they can’t find that common ground we have to find other ways for the people to speak more directly.”
Rutgers Today: Gov. Christie vetoed a bill to raise the minimum wage in January. If voters approve the minimum wage hike, what’s the likelihood of it being vetoed again?
Fine: “When people get a chance to vote on an issue directly it puts greater pressure on lawmakers when they see how much support there is from voters in the state.”
Rutgers Today: Opponents of the ballot question, including Gov. Christie, argue that raising the minimum wage would stall the economy by decreasing the number of new jobs created. Is that true?
Fine: “The thing is that many economists have debunked this contention, and one of them is in the White House. (Fine is referencing Alan B. Krueger, a former chair of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and a member of the Cabinet who in 1997 co-authored Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage, which argued, based on data, that increases in the minimum wage did not result in job loss.) The long-held belief that minimum wage increases cause job loss wasn’t true then and isn’t true now. We’re in an era where there’s much less of a sense on the part of employers that paying their workers adequate full-time wages is a cost of doing business they have to absorb.”
Rutgers Today: How do non-legal workers factor into this debate?
Fine: “It’s the whole idea of making workforces disposable. You hire people who don’t have any rights, who can’t advocate. You keep the hours part time so they have to juggle multiple jobs, and eventually, they burn out. You don’t have to develop relationships with your work force or look people in the eye and explain why you can’t pay them a family supporting wage.”