The Assembly Labor Committee has approved a bill boosting New Jersey’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.

The vote was 6-2-1 after about two hours of testimony yesterday. Earlier this week Governor Chris Christie said Democrats haven’t reached out to him to discuss the bill, but Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver says Christie is now involved in the process.

At his most recent Town Hall meeting on Tuesday, Christie was asked his thoughts on the measure to increase the minimum wage from its current $7.25 an hour. He said, “I am not yet focused on the minimum wage situation and what we may or may not do, but what I can guarantee you is that nothing will be done unless I’m a player at the table to discuss it…and so far the Democrats have just decided to operate on their own. We’ve seen this before, when they operate on their own, things get vetoed…They should come and sit and talk to me about it. No one has yet.”

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Yesterday, Oliver said, “Democratic leadership is communicating with the Governor. This morning I placed a call to the Governor and I assured him that we are not seeking to create any type of bi-partisan theatrics here…..Anything that does happen as it relates to the minimum wage happens with myself, (Senate President) Senator (Steve) Sweeney and the Governor at a table agreeing to things.”

The bill approved yesterday, increases New Jersey’s hourly minimum wage rate to $8.50 on July 1, 2012 and then requires that, starting in calendar year 2013, the minimum wage be adjusted annually based on any increase in the Consumer Price Index, with the adjustment taking effect on July 1 of each year.

“This is economic stimulus and a recognition that thousands of households in New Jersey are struggling to subsist on minimum wage jobs that do not allow them to support their families,” says Oliver. “This is about livable wages for the lowest-income earners. Quite simply, we should all support economic stimulus, increased consumer spending and livable wages.”

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages than New Jersey. Even much lower-cost-of-living states such as Florida, Arizona, Ohio, Illinois, and Montana have higher minimum wages. In Washington State, the minimum wage is $9.04. Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington all increased their minimum wages this year.

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Small businesses cannot absorb a 17 percent minimum wage increase in an economy where sales and profits are stagnant according to the New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA).

“If sales are not rising fast enough to accommodate forced wage hikes, employers will be forced to make tough personnel and operating decisions (such as reducing workers’ hours or cutting other costs),” says NJBIA assistant vice president Stephanie Riehl. “Unfortunately, an automatic annual increase of wages does not mean an automatic annual increase in sales and revenue to cover the added labor costs.”

New Jersey Policy Perspective president Deborah Howlett says, “This legislation is one of the most important actions elected officials in Trenton can take to immediately improve the lives of tens of thousands of working families struggling to make ends meet in New Jersey and at the same time improve the state’s economy for every other resident……In a state with one of the highest median incomes in the nation and one of the highest costs of living, those at the bottom of the wage scale often find it a struggle to raise their families here. The increase may be only $1.25 an hour, but it could mean the difference in families paying a utility bill in full or buying new school clothes for their children.”

Riehl explains, “New Jersey’s minimum wage would be the third highest in the nation, behind only Washington and Oregon. Additionally, New Jersey would become only the second state in the region to establish an automatic-wage-increase index. Many New Jersey businesses are still struggling, and this proposal would put them at a further competitive disadvantage with their counterparts in 30 other states.”

Video by Dino Flammia