Speaking on the minimum wage increase signed into law Feb. 4, Mary Inkrot, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, said, “I consider it a step in the right direction, but advocacy needs to continue for affordable housing and medical care … For those relying upon minimum wage jobs, I hope that their standard of living will improve.” Stock Image

Speaking on the minimum wage increase signed into law Feb. 4, Mary Inkrot, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, said, “I consider it a step in the right direction, but advocacy needs to continue for affordable housing and medical care … For those relying upon minimum wage jobs, I hope that their standard of living will improve.” Stock Image

By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor

New Jersey’s minimum wage earners will now see a steady increase to $15 an hour under a bill signed into state law Feb. 4 by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The long-debated increase will happen incrementally, with most of New Jersey’s low-wage workers seeing a rise to $10 an hour in July, and a jump of another $1 each January until reaching $15 an hour in 2024. The current rate is $8.85 an hour.

Social service agencies in the Diocese of Trenton weighed in on the decision and how it might affect their institutions and the clients they serve. They found some praiseworthy aspects of the wage increase.

“I consider it a step in the right direction,” said Mary Inkrot, executive director of Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, “but advocacy needs to continue for affordable housing and medical care… For those relying upon minimum wage jobs, I hope that their standard of living will improve, that maybe they won’t have to work multiple jobs and will be able to spend more time with their families.”

Susan Loughery, director of operations for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, thought there was potential for “positive impact on individuals and families by closing the inflation gap and helping to cover basic needs, such as food and clothing.”

And Tom Mladenetz, executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization of Mercer County, said a portion of those who use the program’s social services could see some helpful results of the legislation.

“The CYO serves a diverse group of families at our many community centers throughout Mercer County,” he said. “Surely, many of our clients from our Trenton-based sites, as well as some others, will benefit tremendously from the increase in the New Jersey minimum wage. This will be especially true for our families who work multiple jobs to make ends meet now.”

The pitfalls of the decision, however, cannot be ignored – neither by the agencies providing need-based services, nor their beneficiaries. Some clients are completely living on assistance and will not see a change in their standard of living. Others could be denied assistance based on their improved income.

“It is a balancing act,” Loughery allowed. “We don’t want to see a situation where those we serve actually lose benefits because the minimum wage increase boosts them slightly above the poverty line. This is particularly true when it comes to housing costs, as there is a significant shortage of affordable housing in New Jersey.”

Inkrot replied with similar concerns. “More than 80 percent of our clients live on fixed incomes … [so] their income will not be affected by the increase,” she noted. “Please remember that the cost of living in Mercer County, especially housing, remains high.”

Mladenetz said that CYO families’ child care expenses could be directly affected.

“Since most of these families receive state-subsidized child care vouchers, which are based on family size and family income, their child care costs will actually increase,” he said. “Unless the state adjusts the current income guidelines, these families will actually see some of their gains offset by greater expenses.”

Inkrot imagines that for Mount Carmel Guild, “the need for our services could possibly increase as there will be increased competition for minimum wage jobs and that fewer minimum wage jobs would be available.”

In spite of the challenges, Loughery believes ultimately that as a social services employer, Catholic Charities “must balance mission and margin, to ensure sustainability of services for the poor and vulnerable. When we look at the issue in the context of Catholic social teaching, the dignity of the worker must be protected, and a fair living wage is an example of that protection and the reflection of a just economy.”