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Bill seeks to repeal ‘racist’ wage law

RICHMOND, Va. – More than half a century after the end of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South, legislators are finding remnants of racism in Virginia law.

The Code of Virginia makes it legal for employers to pay less than minimum wage to “newsboys, shoe-shine boys, caddies on golf courses, babysitters, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters.”

The common thread among those professions? When the law was written in 1975, they were all considered low-income, low-skill jobs overwhelmingly occupied by African Americans who were systematically denied advanced employment opportunities.

Now, two members of the Virginia House of Delegates – Paul Krizek and Jennifer Boysko, both Democrats from Fairfax – are sponsoring legislation to delete such outdated language from state law.

“This is a list that has Jim Crow written all over it,” Krizek said. “There’s a lot of old language that was obviously aimed at African Americans who were in these service jobs because those were the jobs they could get at the time.”

The language was originally pulled verbatim from North Carolina’s legal code, which was written a decade earlier, in 1965.

“There is some fairly widespread agreement and research supporting the conclusion that a lot of these exemptions were based on race,” said Ann Hodges, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

The wage discrimination doesn’t stop at race. Virginians with mental, intellectual and physical disabilities also may receive subminimum wage because their “earning capacity is impaired,” according to the state code.

According to Hodges, at the time the law was written, many people believed that individuals with intellectual, physical and mental disabilities could not be as productive and generate as much labor as able-bodied workers.

“There was a sense that if you couldn’t pay them less, they probably wouldn’t be employed at all,” Hodges said.

Under HB 1259, it would no longer be legal in Virginia for employers to pay laborers in certain service industries less than minimum wage. (The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and Virginia has not adopted a higher level. However, Krizek, Boysko and other Democrats are pushing to raise it to $9 an hour this year and to $15 an hour by 2022.)

The bill would affect other employees, such as restaurant servers, in addition to the positions the sponsors say are directly connected to race.

“While doing research for a $15 minimum wage bill, I was angry and disappointed to learn that the Virginia Code includes exceptions to its minimum wage law that are clearly racist, meant to exclude jobs that have been mostly held historically by minorities,” Boysko said.

“As we continue to build our new Virginia economy, we must ensure that all people are treated fairly and have the same opportunities.”

HB 1259 has been assigned to the House Committee on Commerce and Labor.

By Caitlin Barbieri and Lia Tabackman/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.