NEWARK, NJ - Employees at Newark International Liberty Airport in March were on the verge of receiving an hourly wage increase up to $19, but the Port Authority Board of Commissioners has stalled on giving its final approval for the measure.

So yesterday, Gov. Phil Murphy and Mayor Ras Baraka joined members of 32BJ SEIU, a union that represents 14,000 airport employees in New York and New Jersey, during a rally in Newark calling for increased wages. The protest comes ahead of a vote later this month from the commissioners that will hopefully end a years’ long push for wage increases.

"This is a battle - an important battle - in a bigger war for minimum wage,” Murphy said yesterday at a busy Terminal C in Newark Liberty International Airport. “It is a war that we're gonna not relent on. We cannot accept levels of wages that they are in this state and in this country as they stand today.”

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The Port Authority Board of Commissioners in March proposed rules for an incremental wage increase that would eventually lead to $19 an hour by 2023. The proposal called for a $2 increase this year for airport workers in Newark, bringing the minimum wage up to $12.45 an hour. The minimum wage for employees would jump to $15.60 in 2019; $16.20 in 2020; $17 in 2021; and $18 in 2022.

The final vote of approval from the commissioners was slated for June, and the proposed minimum wage rules were posted online for 60 days of public comment leading up to the vote.

While a majority of the comments were positive, not all of them were. The commissioners decided to hold off the final vote and allow people to weigh in on those concerns. 

Airport businesses and trade associations have said that the three airports under Port Authority's jurisdiction - Newark, JFK and LaGuardia - are already some of the most expensive in the nation. Increased minimum wages could trigger a series of layoffs at the airports, the groups warned.

There was some concern over whether the Port Authority even had the legal authority to increase wages. And what about tipped workers, benefits and small employers, the groups asked?

“The issues that were raised - and some of them I think in the last 10 days - they are significant,” said Port Authority Chairman Kevin O’Toole at a press conference in June. “They are intellectual arguments that have been brought our way that really have to be dissected, researched. And we have some work to be done." 

O’Toole, who was nominated by former Gov. Chris Christie as Port Authority’s chairman, added that lawyers needed to be consulted to discuss regulations and make sure that whichever decision is made “is the right one with solid legal backing.”

Murphy campaigned on increases to New Jersey’s minimum wage, which right now stands at $8.60 an hour. He hasn’t gotten that campaign promise passed in the state Legislature yet, but he’s hoping to at least get an increase at the airport.

Port Authority commissioners, who are appointed by governors in New York and New Jersey, seemed supportive of wage increases until the businesses at the airport raised concerns. At the rally yesterday, the governor called on private airport businesses to go along with the wage hikes. 

“We plead with the private sector to stand up and abide by that decision because it is the right thing to do,” Murphy said.

Right now, airport workers in Newark have a minimum wage of $10.45 an hour, which is higher than what is required in New Jersey. But Newark employees' counterparts at Port Authority’s airports in New York have a $13 minimum wage, due to legislation from that state’s governor.

The wage increases would affect about 40,000 airport employees in New York and New Jersey and impact non-unionized workers too, said 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa.  

"Paying workers a fair wage at the airport means that our airports is not only providing good jobs for the community, but we're paying workers who will be able to keep us safe, keep us protected,” Figueroa said.

Newark’s mayor, Baraka, said it was important to support airport workers, especially in light of Labor Day.  

"I believe that every American deserves a pathway to the American dream,” he said. “Every American - despite where they live, where their zip code is, the language they speak, what their origins are - deserve a pathway to the middle class.”

The commissioners’ vote is slated for Sept. 27 in Jersey City.

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