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July 9, 2024

Where We Are on Key Policies that Support Working People and Needed Progress (Session 2024 Recap)

Working people drive our businesses and economy. And the public policy choices that support working people and impact their well-being, like how much the lowest-paid workers are paid or their ability to join together to improve working conditions, are key to an economy that works for all of us. Although federal policy decisions get most of the media attention, many decisions that impact our everyday lives are made at the state Capitol building and governor’s mansion in Richmond. We saw some positive changes this year, including slightly increasing reimbursement rates – and therefore pay – for Virginia’s personal care, respite, and companionship workers, who provide critical services to help elderly and disabled Virginians stay safely at home rather than entering nursing homes. Unfortunately, the governor’s vetoes stopped some other much-needed policy changes that passed the General Assembly and would have helped the economy work better for working families. Important proposals to recognize collective bargaining rights for state employees and expand them for local government employees were not approved by the General Assembly this year.

Perhaps the highest profile labor policy fight this year was to “re-enact” – that is, pass a second time – Virginia’s 2020 minimum wage law to keep Virginia on the path to a $15 minimum wage by January 1, 2026. Before the 2020 legislative session, Virginia’s minimum wage dollar level was tied to the federal minimum wage amount, which has stagnated at $7.25 an hour, and contained many exclusions, preventing workers in many historically Black occupations from being protected by Virginia’s minimum wage law. In 2020, legislators set Virginia on a path to a $15 minimum wage by January 1, 2026. But in a compromise to secure enough votes to pass, legislators attached a “re-enactment” clause, requiring the law be passed a second time in 2023 or 2024 to continue the path to $15.

Starting January 1, 2025, the state minimum wage, currently $12 an hour, will increase based on inflation. Still, this bandage does not increase the minimum wage in real value or make up for decades of inaction, and will not even fully account for the inflation that will have occurred in the prior two years. Unfortunately, unexpectedly high inflation has eroded the buying power of the 2020 legislation, making the current $12 minimum wage worth less than policymakers could have reasonably expected back in early 2020. Prices increased 21% between March 2020 and March 2024, while under normal inflation conditions of 2% a year, they would have gone up just 8.2%. This year’s House Bill 1 (HB1) and Senate Bill 1 (SB1) would have addressed this problem. Continuing Virginia on the path to $15 by 2026 would have boosted pay for about 611,000 working Virginians, the majority of whom are workers of color and six out of every 10 of whom are women. The General Assembly passed and funded the state cost of this important improvement, but Governor Youngkin vetoed it on March 28.

A person with short hair and wearing an apron stands smiling, with arms crossed in the middle of a grocery store. 
image for key policies that support working people

Legislators also worked this year to remove the long-standing exclusion of farmworkers from Virginia’s minimum wage. This exclusion is rooted in Jim Crow-era attempts by white southern elites to maintain a two-tier wage system and thereby undermine interracial solidarity, while suppressing wages for Black workers and therefore their own labor costs. Although survey data on farmworkers in Virginia is limited, the stories and observations gathered by farmworker organizers show this exclusion primarily harms Latino workers today. Unfortunately, HB157, which would have undone this exclusion, was also vetoed by the governor on March 28.

Some public policies directly impact wages, while other policies — like the rules and limitations around collective bargaining — indirectly impact both wages and the overall ability of working people to exert influence over their working conditions and our society as a whole. When working people are able to join together and collectively bargain over wages, benefits, and working conditions, they are able to improve their own wages and benefits, which also results in higher wages for non-union workers and a higher level of participation in (small-d) democratic structures. That’s why unions were the bedrock of the expansion of the middle class and increase in living standards during the post-WWII years. By contrast, it’s no coincidence that the intentional erosion of labor unions in the past 40 years has coincided with greater inequality and a stagnating standard of living for most working people.

Currently in Virginia, state employees — people like the teaching, nursing, and cleaning staff at our public colleges and hospitals, highway maintenance workers, and retail workers at ABC stores — are prohibited by state law from collective bargaining. Local government and school board employees are only allowed to collectively bargain if their employer passes a resolution or ordinance opting in. This year, legislators put forward a proposal to recognize collective bargaining rights for state workers and to strengthen collective bargaining for local government and school employees. Virginia’s long-time ban on collective bargaining by state and local workers is rooted in state suppression of organizing by Black workers. The first General Assembly resolution against state agencies and local governments recognizing and bargaining with unionized workers was in response to Black workers organizing at UVA hospital in the 1940s, and that resolution was cited in the 1977 Supreme Court of Virginia decision saying local governments didn’t have the right to bargain with unions. In 2020, legislators partially lifted the ban for local workers but created a complex opt-in system rather than fully recognizing collective bargaining rights, while not making any progress at the state level. Unfortunately, this year’s proposals to strengthen recognition of collective bargaining rights did not advance from the House and Senate “money committees.”

As we look to build a commonwealth where every family can thrive, more progress must be made on these key labor protections to support working people.

Stay tuned for TCI’s summary of health care actions during the 2024 legislative session, including progress toward broader access to paid family and medical leave.

Economic Opportunity

Levi Goren

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