RICHMOND, Va. -- The push to raise the minimum wage in Virginia may bear fruit in 2020 after Democrats gained power at the General Assembly. Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia Democrats listed raising state wage standards as part of their package of legislative priorities one day before the 2020 session begins.
Advocacy groups, emboldened by the new power balance at the State Capitol, said they plan to hold accountable state lawmakers who campaigned on helping low wage workers.
Virginia’s minimum wage is currently the same at the federal standard of $7.25 per hour for hourly employees who do not earn tips. The federal minimum wage has not changed in more than a decade (2009) while the cost of living in many areas has increased.
Multiple bills before the legislature would raise Virginia’s minimum wage gradually over the course of several years. Although the bills vary, most would boost the standard to $9-$10 per hour by July and to $15 per hour with in the next three to five years. Worker groups are backing HB 395 by Del. Jeion Ward.
Northam said Tuesday the details still need to be worked out, but Democrats planned to set in-motion a minimum wage increase this session.
Business groups warned that increasing the minimum wage would backfire on the very people the legislation is supposed to help. Small and medium-sized businesses would have to defray those added costs by cutting hours or jobs, pro-business groups said.
At a press conference held by the Raise the Wage Coalition, a group of pro-workers organizations, multiple low-income workers spoke about the impact low wages have on their lives.
Thomasine Wilson works as an in-home care worker, assisting elderly clients with daily tasks they can no longer perform. While most of her patients have a lifetime of savings, Wilson said many of her colleagues do not because they begin working out of trade school near the minimum wage.
“It's a shame and disgrace that you'd even have to suggest that be an income for someone. Can you try to pay a car note and insurance and taxes off that same car on $8?” Wilson asked.
Lisa Harris said she began working a minimum wage job at Kroger 13 years ago. She now makes $13 per hour, but Harris said has put off basic life steps because of her earnings.
“I heard the longer you stayed the longer you made.,” Harris said. “Because I make so little, I've put off getting married maybe having kids. I'd like to do those things, but they seem like a pipe dream.”
Multiple business advocacy groups said raising the minimum wage would end up harming low wage workers in the long run.
“It kind of has unintended consequences,” said Nicole Riley with the Virginia Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. “They have to absorb the costs somehow. They are going to do that through eliminating hours for workers, eventually eliminating entry-level jobs. They're going to rely on their more skilled workers and experienced workers to take on more.”
Riley said young and part-time workers should be worried about an increase in the minimum wage because many businesses would choose to eliminate entry-level positions.
Jodi Roth, government affairs director for the Virginia Retail Association, said business owners know their bottom line best and state-mandated wage levels would harm small and medium-sized businesses.
“They view it as someone coming into their home and telling them how to run their home budget,” Roth said. “Some of our business owners have indicated they may have to close their doors, depending on how high the wage goes.”
Both Riley and Roth said state lawmakers should invest in job training and placement programs so that minimum wage workers could acquire skills that improved their salaries prospects.
Wilson said from here experience, the issue is not access to training but wage levels.
“You cannot afford to live off $7.25!” Wilson said. “You try living for 12 months with no credit card, no money in the bank, and live off what you want me to live off of?”
A 2019 study by the Commonwealth Institute for Public Policy found that increasing the minimum wage in Virginia would help more than 1.2 million people.