Virtual rally-goers say VA’s minimum wage increase shouldn’t wait as coronavirus restrictions strain budgets

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – As the economy reels from business restrictions, state leaders will have to decide if hundreds of thousands of workers will have to wait longer for higher wages.

Gov. Ralph Northam has until Saturday to make changes to bills that passed the General Assembly earlier this year, including legislation that would raise the state’s minimum wage for the first time in more than a decade. Advocates fear financial circumstances surrounding the coronavirus will set back what was widely considered a landmark victory for the Democratic majority.

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis organized a rally online so workers could make their voices heard from home.

“We need to be creative in these challenging times,” said the institute’s President Michael Cassidy. “We can’t march in person but we can march online.”

Nodding to the rally, Del. Jeion Ward posted a video on Twitter asking Gov. Northam not to delay the implementation of the minimum wage bill.

“It’s going to affect 800,000 Virginians. Many of them are those that we consider essential workers,” Del. Ward said, referencing the state’s nursing home and grocery store employees among others. “So why don’t we treat them as if they’re essential by making sure we increase their wages.”

The bill awaiting the governor’s signature incrementally raises the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2023, beginning with a $9.50 per hour mandate by January 2021. The General Assembly will have to vote again to move forward to $15 per hour after the state completes a study evaluating the impact of having different rates by region.

Virginia’s current minimum wage is $7.25, an amount unchanged since 2009.

As business restrictions from coronavirus cause tax revenue to plummet, the Virginia Municipal League sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam. The group said local governments can’t afford a wage increase without sacrificing critical health and safety services.

“VML does not oppose the policy choice made by the GA to increase the minimum wage,” said the group’s policy team in a statement. “Virginia’s localities can’t afford it right now, which is why we are requesting a delay of one year.”

When asked at a press conference last week about the VML’s request, Gov. Northam said his administration is currently reviewing several pieces of legislation pertaining to the current business environment.

“I haven’t made any definite decisions,” Northam said.

For domestic workers like Lenka Mendoza, who have traditionally been excluded from labor laws, a raise is long overdue. Mendoza said she has watched three children for $50 per day and no benefits.

“Many of them [domestic workers] continue to take care of children, adults or disabled people. They are still providing their services and putting their lives at risk,” Mendoza said. “Even in these difficult times, domestic workers are important and we need a worthy salary now.”

Cassidy of The Commonwealth Institute said low-wage workers tend to spend their paychecks in their communities. He said this boost in buying power could be important as the pubic health crisis subsides.

“Raising the minimum wage actually plays a role in helping us bring the economy back,” Cassidy said. “We’ve done it before during times of recession and so we can go confidently forward in doing it again.”

The General Assembly’s pending two-year budget plan passed on the same day that the governor declared a ‘State of Emergency’ in March.

On Tuesday, 8News confirmed that Northam is suspending all new spending in the budget plan. His office said this freeze does not apply to any potential budgetary impacts of legislation, including the minimum wage bill.

The General Assembly is scheduled to return to Richmond for a reconvened session on April 22nd.

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