By Maddie Hanna
TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers, local officials, and labor and women's rights leaders, citing a need to support working women, called Monday for raising the state's minimum wage.
On the anniversary of women getting the right to vote, female leaders and Democratic lawmakers - including gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono - supported a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25, with annual increases tied to inflation.
Voters will decide on the increase Nov. 5. Speakers at a Statehouse news conference said the measure would help women, who make up 60 percent of the state's minimum-wage earners, achieve economic equality.
They also argued the state's economy would improve if low-wage workers earned more - and had more to spend. Minimum-wage earners working 40 hours a week make $15,080 a year. With a raise to $8.25, those workers would earn an additional $2,000 a year.
"How you fix the economy, and how you make things better in this state, is you raise the bar," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).
New Jersey's minimum wage was increased in 2005 to $7.15 an hour and later rose to match the federal minimum of $7.25.
Earlier this year, Gov. Christie vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour and included annual cost-of-living increases. The Republican governor said he would have agreed to raise the wage by $1 an hour phased in over three years with no cost-of-living indexing.
Buono, the Middlesex state senator challenging Christie, said the governor had "vetoed the hopes and promises of a better quality of life for a quarter of a million women in New Jersey."
According to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think-tank, 250,000 women and 179,000 men - 11 percent of the state's workforce - would be affected by the proposed increase, including workers who make up to $9.25 an hour who would receive future increases tied to inflation.
Buono said New Jersey women earn 78 cents for each dollar earned by men - and less for women who are minorities.
"We cannot ignore that a disproportionate number of women, as a result of this governor's misplaced priorities, are being denied" the dignity of being able to support their families, Buono said.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie's campaign, said in a statement that the governor had "offered a responsible path forward" by proposing the phased-in increase and restoring the state's earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers.
"Barbara Buono and her colleagues in the Legislature rejected that commonsense approach, choosing instead to politicize and grandstand on the issue, just as you saw today," Roberts said.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage say the increase won't necessarily reduce poverty and could have unintended consequences. A national group, the Employment Policies Institute, has been running television and radio advertisements in the state, suggesting teen workers will lose opportunities if employers cut back on hiring to compensate for higher wages.
Sweeney countered that argument Monday.
"Don't allow anybody to use the argument these are kids flipping burgers," he said. "There's over 60,000 women in this state right now - someone said 60 percent of the minimum-wage earners are women. They're heads of households, trying to raise their children, when they have to work two or three jobs."
Of the workers who would be affected by the minimum-wage proposal, 6.2 percent are single mothers, said Michael Saltsman, research director for the Washington-based Employment Policies Institute, citing an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
In raising the wage, "are we helping the families we intend to?" Saltsman said.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have a minimum wage higher than New Jersey. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll conducted in April found strong support for increasing the state's minimum wage, with 76 percent of residents in favor.