$15 minimum wage, paid sick days hang in balance as Democrats debate labor priorities

$15 minimum wage, paid sick days hang in balance as Democrats debate labor priorities
Advocates for raising the minimum wage rallied at the Capitol on the eve of the 2020 General Assembly. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Perhaps you’ve heard.

CNBC named Virginia its top state for business last year — honorific lawmakers have recited so many times that was it tied to a drinking game, everyone would have been carted out of the General Assembly Building with alcohol poisoning by now.

Republicans have invoked the cable-news survey results mostly to warn colleagues what’s at stake if a raft of worker and union-friendly reforms are allowed to advance. Democrats bring it up, too, but more often to make the point that the state has also recently been ranked worst for workers.

But for all the dire talk, labor groups aren’t exactly having the banner year some might have expected under Democratic rule.

At the session’s midway point last week, a handful of closely watched bills had already been voted down, including a repeal of Virginia’s right to work law and a proposal to create a universal paid family leave program.

A bill to require all businesses with 15 or more employees to offer five paid sick days a year failed in the House but survived the Senate, leaving it very much up in the air.

Other proposals have been significantly scaled back in the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrower 21-19 majority and a handful of moderate members of the caucus have pushed for a more conservative approach on issues like the minimum wage, collective bargaining for public employees, and project labor agreements in public procurement.

The debate over the minimum wage has been especially divisive. Democrats in the House advanced legislation that would raise it statewide to $15 an hour by 2025 and provide automatic increases tied to inflation every year after that.

The Senate ultimately settled on a regional approach that would only guarantee $15 an hour to workers in Northern Virginia, and not until 2027. The remainder of the state would be divided into regions that would see smaller increases based on median family income from a floor of $11.50 an hour.

While many Republicans and some Democrats said they see merit in an approach that recognizes the cost of living differences in northern, southwestern and central portions of the state, the proposal has alarmed some members of the party and labor groups, who worry it will only drive up inequality.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.