Jersey City Workers Get Minimum Wage Increase

Mayor Steven Fulop's executive order will impact 500 public employees. (The Ink/Adam Kelsey)
Mayor Steven Fulop’s executive order raises the minimum wage for 500 public employees. (The Ink/Adam Kelsey)

When public employees in Jersey City receive their next paycheck, they can expect to see a larger number than usual.

Mayor Steven Fulop signed an executive order Monday raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for city workers, becoming the first mayor in New Jersey to pass such an increase.

The order follows the lead of other major cities such as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and New York, which have all guaranteed their public employees a raise to $15.

Fulop said he wanted to “ensure that working for Jersey City provides a base salary, which allows you to live in this region,” according to a statement released following the order’s signing.

Jersey City is the state’s second largest city and an estimated 500 low-wage workers will benefit from the wage increase. The city employees, which include crossing guards, custodial staff and emergency dispatchers, previously earned between $8.38 per hour, the minimum set by state law, and $15 per hour.

Though Fulop took the action alone, members of the City Council were quick to support the mayor.

“The current minimum wage makes it nearly impossible for our working class to provide for themselves and those they love,” said Ward B Councilman Khemraj Ramchal.

The increase will cost the city between $1 million and $1.2 million, according to a spokesman for the mayor’s office, a sum that will be factored into the 2016 budget and not require a raise in taxes.

With the city’s population rising almost 6 percent in the last five years and more than 150 businesses opening in or moving to the city, Councilwoman at Large, Joyce Watterman compared the wage adjustment to a bonus for a job well done, as employees have kept up with the growth.

“I confer with [city workers] a lot,” said Watterman. “I go around the city and see what they do, and I think they do a fantastic job.”

Because the new minimum wage only applies to public employees, it has not encountered opposition in the decidedly liberal city. A push to expand the increase to include private sector employees would likely be a different story.

“We would need to do more research and study,” said Ward D Councilman Michael Yun, commenting on the prospect of a minimum wage increase to cover all workers, public and private. Private employers could struggle if required to pay higher salaries, said Yun. “The impact on low-skill workers would probably mean losing jobs.”

Fulop’s order comes as New Jersey lawmakers are considering a statewide minimum wage increase.

In early February, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, both Democrats, proposed an amendment to the state constitution aimed at raising the state minimum wage to $15. They cited a 2013 referendum that bumped the baseline from $7.25 to $8.25 and did not lead to a decrease in new jobs. The $8.25 has since increased to $8.38 due to inflation.

Republicans were quick to respond to the proposed increase of nearly 80 percent, with Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick calling it unreasonable.

“Job creators already find New Jersey’s business environment difficult with high taxes and burdensome regulations,” said Bramnick in an interview with the Burlington County Times.

Republicans have claimed that higher wages will affect small businesses’ bottom-lines and that the cost will be passed along to consumers.

Any progress in the matter at the state level will most likely be stalled until 2017, after Republican Governor Chris Christie leaves office. In a 2014 speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Legal Reform Summit, Christie said he was “tired of hearing about the minimum wage,” and that an increase wasn’t the answer to growth for the economy.

Sweeney, Bramnick and Fulop are all considered potential candidates to succeed Christie, though none have publicly announced plans to run. Raising the minimum wage could be a point of differentiation between the candidates in both a potential primary and general election.

Three years into Fulop’s first term as Mayor, the 39-year-old has maintained a focus on progressive policies. He made headlines during his first 100 days in office when he signed an ordinance that forced city employers to provide paid sick leave to their workers. Jersey City became only the sixth city in the country with such a law.

That accomplishment is now listed on Fulop’s 2017 campaign website. The site neglects to mention whether he’ll be running for reelection as mayor or for governor.

“I think anybody who’s running for governor, myself included, if I go down that road, would say that advocating for [increases to the minimum wage] is important,” Fulop told NJTV Monday.

For now at least, the mayor seems focused on his own city.

“I can’t in good conscious advocate for something we haven’t implemented ourselves,” said Fulop. “Actions speak louder than words.”