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January 27, 2022

Most Richmond City Employees Are Paid Too Little to Reasonably Support a Family; Collective Bargaining Would Reduce Turnover Costs and Pay Disparities, Improve Services

New report provides local data for the City of Richmond and supplements recent reports on Fairfax and Loudoun counties and the cities of Newport News and Virginia Beach

Weeks after Richmond Public Schools became the first school district in Virginia to approve collective bargaining rights for teachers and staff, a new report by The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (TCI) shows that Richmond City employees are also often paid too little to achieve economic security for their families. The new report builds on recent TCI analysis of four other Virginia localities, and provides insight into current pay for Richmond City employees, typical total compensation for local government employees in Virginia compared to their private-sector peers, the high cost of employee turnover to the city, and how collective bargaining helps close pay disparities. 

“Having the right to collectively bargain provides a voice on the job and reduces the pay penalty facing public-sector workers,” says Laura Goren, the Research Director at The Commonwealth Institute and one of the report authors. “And since discrimination in the private sector has led many Black people to choose public service jobs, restoring collective bargaining rights for city workers would particularly help Black Richmonders. Of all city workers, 58% are Black, and 86% of Black city workers are paid too little to support a small family of themselves and two children in the city.”

“It’s not surprising that anti-union laws throughout the south were passed using explicit appeals to racist ideas,” says Mel Borja, a policy analyst at The Commonwealth Institute and co-author of the report. “Unions are vital to raising pay for those who have historically been marginalized and underpaid compared to their levels of experience and education.”

The report includes a new analysis of Richmond City employee salaries compared to the cost of living in Richmond. Key new findings include:

  • One in 12 city employees likely couldn’t afford to support themselves in Richmond at a modest yet adequate standard of living. And 3 in 4 couldn’t attain an adequate standard of living on what they are paid if they have two children.
  • Turnover rates for city employees are high and remarkably expensive. The Office of the City Auditor has indicated that the median agency turnover rate was 11.3% and directly costs the city approximately $6.7 million per year. 

“I’ve worked in the library for 28 years. I love what I do… I only recently started earning $17 an hour and that is still low,” says Cynthia Jones, a Senior Library Technician of the Richmond City Public Library system in a quote included in the report. “We have people who leave left and right because of the pay, the workload and the lack of communication…. With collective bargaining, things will be fair across the board when they are hiring, when they post positions, and when they move people up.”

In addition to the new findings, the report includes key findings from other recent research:

  • Local government public employees in Virginia are typically paid 29.9% less than their private-sector peers with similar levels of education, age, and hours worked — one of the largest pay penalties in the country (Economic Policy Institute, June 2021).
  • Public-sector collective bargaining tends to reduce (while not fully eliminating) the pay penalty for public employees compared to their private-sector peers, boosting pay by 5%-8% (Brunner and Ju, ILR Review, March 2019).
  • The fair and clear standards provided by unionization particularly help Black and Latino workers (Economic Policy Institute, August 2020). Women, who make up the majority of local government workers (especially in Virginia), would also benefit from collective bargaining (Economic Policy Institute, June 2021).

“Since Black workers and women are also disadvantaged in the broader labor market, strengthening collective bargaining rights for local government workers should reduce racial and gender inequality in the labor force and potentially attract Hispanics and other underrepresented groups to public-sector jobs,” said Monique Morrissey in the release for the June 2021 Economic Policy Institute report, which can be found at

The Commonwealth Institute

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