TRENTON - The Assembly on Thursday approved a bill that would increase the state's minimum hourly wage to $8.50 on July 1. If passed by the Senate, the measure would go to Gov. Christie, who has not said whether he would sign it.
Republican lawmakers argued that the state's economy is too fragile to handle a rise in business labor costs. The bill would provide for automatic future increases by tying the wage to the consumer price index, which measures the cost of living. The minimum wage is currently $7.25.
Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R., Monmouth) said the proposed $1.25 an hour increase on July 1 was too big a jump for businesses to take all at once.
"Give people a little time to build a business plan around this," she said, suggesting that legislators revisit the issue when there are fewer "empty storefronts."
Some of the GOP lawmakers who spoke against raising the wage had one day earlier backed the Republican governor's assessment that New Jersey is experiencing an economic comeback despite lower than expected state revenues. They embraced Christie's economic forecast and his plan to cut income taxes, but urged caution on Thursday, citing the wobbly recovery from the recession.
"We have a high rate of unemployment already," said Assemblyman Christopher J. Brown (R., Burlington). "We're still here fighting with what's going on in Europe."
Passage of the minimum wage bill, which would apply to most workers, would hurt the state's lowest wage earners because "they will spend themselves into more debt," Brown argued.
"Stop substituting hard work for entitlement," he said, drawing groans from the Democratic side of the chamber.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), the bill's prime sponsor, said the Legislature had done plenty in recent years to help businesses recover from the recession. It's time to help those at the bottom of the wage scale, she said.
"I do not believe that raising the minimum wage is going to shut businesses down overnight," Oliver said. "I beseech you to not forget about some of the most challenged people that live in this state."
Citing a new study showing that showed one in four New Jerseyans lived in poverty in 2010 or were among the "working poor," Oliver said that lawmakers had "an obligation to do something about it."
About 40,000 New Jerseyans work for minimum wage, which amounts to about $290 weekly and $15,080 annually, just above the federal poverty line for a single person. The increased wage would give workers $340 a week or roughly $17,680 a year.
The current minimum wage in New Jersey, as in Pennsylvania, is the lowest the federal government allows. Congress raised the federal minimum to $7.25 from $5.85 in 2009. Until 2008, it had been $5.15 for more than a decade. Where federal and state standards differ, employers must pay the higher wage.
In New York, some legislators also were attempting to raise the state minimum wage to $8.50, up from $7.25, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that the measure didn't have enough support in the Republican-led Senate. Cuomo, a Democrat, had said he would sign the bill.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia offer minimum wages higher than the federal standard. Eight of them raised their minimums on Jan. 1, including Washington, the first to raise its minimum wage above $9.
The Assembly on Thursday also approved a bill that bans minors from using tanning beds without parental permission and a resolution that could overturn controversial environmental rules that now allow state regulators to waive certain standards for builders. In addition, it passed a bill introduced by the late Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce, who died in the State House after a marathon voting session in January. The bill, now named for DeCroce, would protect crime victims from harrasment by defendants or their families.