The Times, Trenton

N.J. May Hike Minimum Wage

The Times, Trenton — Thursday, December 9, 2004

Staff Writer

Crystol Thompson enjoys neither days off nor holidays.

During weekdays, she works at two preschools. At night, she works at a homeless shelter. On weekends, she works at a car wash. She works about 110 hours a week, nearly three times the hours most people toil.

"It sounds like a lot to other people, but it's not a lot to me," said the Trenton mother of three who earns slightly more at each job than the state's $5.15-an-hour minimum wage. "I've been working four jobs forever just to make ends meet. It's been impossible. We didn't have food a lot of times."

For people like Thompson, help may be on the way.

Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey is reviewing proposals to increase the state's minimum wage, said his spokeswoman, Kelley Heck.

"At this point, it's likely," Heck said of an increase.

The amount of a possible increase, she said, hasn't been decided, but Codey is "committed to ensuring that every resident has not just a minimum wage but a living wage."

State Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Deptford, chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, said he's discussed a minimum-wage increase with Codey and plans to advance the initiative starting with a Jan. 24 committee meeting.

"New Jersey has the lowest minimum wage in the Northeast," Sweeney said. "It's an embarrassment."

Sweeney has introduced legislation that would increase the state's minimum wage to $7 an hour. A coalition rallied at the State House yesterday for $7.50 per hour. Sweeney said nothing specific has been decided.

"There's no hard numbers yet, and we're discussing that," Sweeney said.

An increase to $7.50 an hour would give New Jersey the highest minimum wage in the nation. Washington now has the highest minimum wage, at $7.15 an hour, though Oregon's will increase to $7.25 on Jan. 1.

Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said a specific proposal is needed before he could comment in-depth, but said increasing the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour is "unrealistic" and could "hurt the very people it seeks to help."

"Something has to give, and what that usually is is either hours or jobs," Kirschner said. "Instead of having five minimum-wage workers, you're going to have four. Instead of working 40 hours per week, you work 30."

He said increasing the minimum wage is a "legitimate discussion," but added, "It does have to be tempered by what goes on in a real business and the real world."

The Fairness Alliance, which last year lobbied for an upper-bracket income tax increase, includes groups such as the AFL-CIO, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Ministry and low-income housing advocates. Jon Shure, president of alliance member New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), said they're hoping Sweeney will adjust his proposal.

New Jersey's minimum wage was the highest in America in 1992, when it was $5.05 an hour. In 1999, Gov. Christie Whitman signed a law requiring the state's minimum wage match the federal level, which was $5.15 an hour and hasn't changed. New Jersey's average hourly wage is $19.72.

A two-bedroom apartment costs an average of $1,026 per month in New Jersey, $135 more than the total gross pay of a minimum-wage worker, according to the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, meaning no money is available for expenses such as food, health care and education.

"You will understand why 900 people, almost half of them children, can be found homeless on any given day in Mercer, the capital county," said Mary Ellen Marino, the Mercer alliance's interim director.

According to an NJPP report, New Jersey ranks sixth in the nation for most workers earning a minimum wage, at 4.1 percent, but also has the fourth highest cost-of-living index of any state in the nation. New Jersey's minimum wage, Shure said, is the same as the states with the lowest costs of living - Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas and North Dakota.

An increased minimum wage would benefit an estimated 307,000 workers in New Jersey, mostly women, blacks and Hispanics. While women make up 49 percent of New Jersey's work force, they account for nearly 60 percent of those earning up to $7.49 an hour in the state, and while blacks and Hispanics comprise 26 percent of the state's work force, they account for 41 percent earning up to $7.49 an hour.

About 75,000 people in New Jersey earn the minimum wage. NJPP determined someone working a full year at minimum wage earns $10,712 annually, while studies have shown a single parent with a child in Trenton must earn $14.69 per hour to make ends meet.

Ev Liebman of New Jersey Citizen Action said a minimum wage that "minimally allows working individuals and families to have an adequate roof over their heads, food on the table, the ability to turn on the lights, put gas in the car and go to the doctor when ill should be a value shared by all of us, including elected officials."

Tom Hester Jr. is the State House bureau chief.

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