General Assembly poised to delay minimum wage increase during reconvened session

General Assembly poised to delay minimum wage increase during reconvened session

Landmark legislation to boost the state’s minimum wage — long out of reach for Democratic lawmakers when Republicans controlled the legislature — faces further delay Wednesday. This time, it’s at the hands of Democrats grappling with the economic ramifications of COVID-19.

“I’m disappointed. I’m so disappointed,” said Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who introduced legislation the General Assembly approved to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 an hour on Jan. 1. The measure would gradually increase Virginia’s minimum wage to $12 in 2023.

The landscape in Virginia has changed significantly since lawmakers cast those votes: The state’s revenues have taken a hit that isn’t yet fully quantifiable, businesses have reported severe financial duress, and service industry workers have become likened to wartime heroes.

In a calculation meant to help shore up the state’s economy, Gov. Ralph Northam is asking lawmakers to delay the increase by four months to May 2021, eliciting support from business groups and disappointment from advocates of low-wage workers.

Lawmakers will meet in Richmond on Wednesday for their annual reconvened session in order to take up Northam’s proposed amendments to legislation, including his proposal on the minimum wage.

Ward, who has long advocated for the legislation and who delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor arguing that the state’s lowest-paid workers had waited long enough, said she would support the amendment with reservations. She said in an interview that she planned to support Northam’s proposed delay, fearing that going against it could risk the measure altogether.

“We have a lot of small businesses trying to come back, so perhaps they need those few more months in order to come in and make sure they are ready. I’m trying my best to be realistic, and listen to everyone. All of the people involved. But, how do I feel about it? Of course I’m disappointed,” she said.

“These are essential workers that are out there putting their lives on the line every day. And we continue to say, ‘Next year, next year.’ And now we’re here. I hate to see a delay.”

In a radio interview on Friday, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, also said she would support the proposed delay.

“I don’t like to wait, but we are looking at an economy that has been impacted,” she said, adding that workers across the board, “from the employees making minimum wage to senior level employees,” will see promised raises delayed.

Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also said he’ll support the delay, adding that it will save the state $460,000 in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

“[Northam] feels the economy could still be in distress at that point [Jan. 1], and we need a little more time so I’m going to accept his judgment on that,” Sickles said. “We need a minimum wage increase for our lowest-paid workers, and it’s long overdue.”

Northam has suspended all new spending in the two-year financial plan lawmakers will consider Wednesday as the public health and economic crises continue to hit Virginia. Plans for teachers’ raises, another year of frozen tuition and new money for dental coverage for adults on Medicaid, among other things, have been axed in the chief executive’s revised budget.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, said he was “disappointed” to see Northam’s proposed amendment. He associated himself with a letter from the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus to the governor that called for Northam not to delay the implementation of the increase.

“I understand why he did it,” Bourne said, adding: “I think many of the workers who are on the front lines are the ones who could benefit the greatest from a minimum wage increase.”

The proposed delay is likely to have the support of many Republicans who opposed the increase, and who say that amid the COVID-19 crisis, it could cost the state much-needed jobs.

“It is not the time during economic crisis to plan to raise the minimum wage,” Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, said in a recent interview. “The fact is that if you don’t have a job, and you can’t find a job because employers are forced to pay high wages, that will be more injurious to the economy than anything else.”

A group of 29 Virginia business organizations that formed earlier this year to fight a proposed minimum wage increase, among other issues, is asking lawmakers to sign off on Northam’s proposed delay.

The coalition is also asking the legislature to approve Northam’s proposed delays to bills allowing collective bargaining for public employees and establishing a prevailing wage for some public contractors.

The Coalition for a Strong Virginia Economy, in a letter to lawmakers last Wednesday, said it opposes the underlying policies “due to the inherent consequence of increasing the cost of doing business” in the state, but agrees that a delay is needed to help businesses restart before “facing new and costly government mandates.”

“This is a very difficult time for most of Virginia’s small businesses as they have been forced to close or extremely limit operations, so piling on more costs now could be a death knell,” said Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

“It wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest to lose about half of the state’s jobs that these employers provide or endanger economic recovery for Virginia. It is important at this unprecedented time to hold off and step cautiously forward.”

Tram Nguyen, the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, said if lawmakers go forward with the delay, she hopes the Northam administration will find money elsewhere to offer relief to service workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“There are workers risking their lives every day to get food on the table,” Nguyen said.

“If this delay goes through, we hope the governor will use everything in his power to make sure that in future relief packages, he puts working class people first.”

Nguyen, who said that Northam’s decision was “really disappointing,” said that relief could include hazard pay for grocery store workers and others who are deemed essential, but who are not in the health care industry. Or, it could have additional funding for people who don’t qualify for federal stimulus dollars, like immigrants living in the country without authorization.

“From an economic recovery standpoint, we need to make sure our workers are able to recover on an efficient timeline. Even if businesses are bailed out, if we don’t have consumers who can afford to pay for these services, that’s not economic recovery either.”

Full article from Richmond Times-Dispatch