Workers urge Northam to sign minimum wage bill

Workers urge Northam to sign minimum wage bill
Virginia Capitol. (Source: Conor Lobb/Capital News Service)

By Ada Romano

Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Workers and advocates are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 at the start of next year. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 22, and lawmakers will reevaluate recently passed legislation as the state’s economy takes a blow and unemployment climbs during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Northam and state leaders anticipate the state’s economy will suffer a major hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Northam didn’t respond directly whether he is considering delaying the increase in minimum wage when asked at a recent press conference.

“There are a number of pieces of legislation that we are looking at regarding our business environment, and I haven’t made any definite decisions, but we are talking to the patrons of those pieces of legislation,” Northam said. The governor said he will “make a decision in the best interest of Virginia and the best interest of our economy.”

Workers on the front lines of essential businesses continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 outbreak, including many workers who earn minimum wage–currently $7.25 in Virginia.

Employees at a Virginia Kroger grocery store and Amazon distribution center recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many essential workers have asked for an increase in pay to reflect the increased need for their services and the elevated risks they take while working.

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, an advocacy organization, said that raising the minimum wage is necessary to allow these workers to raise their families with dignity.

“That’s especially true now when grocery store workers, delivery drivers, home health aids and so many more are going to work for low wages and putting themselves at risk of getting sick so that we can stay home and healthy,” Scholl said in a press release.

The group is asking Northam to sign House Bill 395 into law without amendments or delays that would water down the bill. HB 395 would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. The minimum wage could go up to $15 by 2026, if approved by the General Assembly.

Some essential workers also argue that they are not being provided adequate protective gear and supplies to keep them safe from the coronavirus, another reason they are pushing for guaranteed wage increase.

Lisa Harris works at Kroger in Mechanicsville and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She has been with Kroger for 13 years and said in a press conference organized by Progress Virginia that she would benefit directly from HB 395. She is urging Northam to sign the bill with no weakening amendments.

“I find it fascinating how fast grocery store workers like me have gone from being considered unskilled labor to being recognized as essential personnel,” Harris said.

She compared workers dealing directly with an increasingly infected public to being on the front lines like first responders and said “it would be nice to be paid accordingly.”

Harris said Kroger is not observing the proper social distancing recommendation of 6 feet or providing workers with personal protective equipment. She said the staff is required to wipe down the self checkout scanners and screens every half hour but argues that this is impossible with the influx of customers visiting the store. Harris said the staff is given Windex to clean equipment and not a proper disinfectant. The company has given full-time workers a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 pay boost, but that’s not enough money, Harris said.

“It means barely being able to support myself, it means making tough decisions about whether to pay a bill or skip a meal, it means calling on my family members to help me as I’m attempting to be a fully enfranchised 31-year old,” Harris said.

Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, said the grocery chain provided all hourly workers with a $2 pay increase for hours worked March 29 through April 18. McGee also stated that all Kroger stores in the Richmond area have been provided with Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants to wipe down counters and cash registers. She said employees are required to wipe down surfaces frequently and extra hand sanitizer bottles have been provided at each checkout station.

“As far as PPE, we are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves, and we’re working hard to secure these resources for our associates,” McGee stated in an email. “Supply has started to arrive for our associates, and we anticipate all locations having personal protective equipment within the next several weeks.”

Kroger said on its website that they want healthcare workers to get a hold of protective gear before they can properly distribute it to their workers. For now employees have limited access to such PPE and are encouraged to use their own.

Beginning April 7, Kroger will also start to limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores, the company announced this week.

Michael Cassidy, executive director of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said that the coronavirus is a reminder many essential workers are also minimum wage workers.

“These individuals are providing a vital service to us right now and they deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said if the minimum wage increase were to go into effect in January, it would help 46,000 healthcare workers, 100,00 retail workers and over 100,000 restaurant and service industry workers. He said this would allow people to buy more and contribute to businesses and the economy as a whole.

“That’s important because consumer spending is the foundation of our economy, it’s about 72% of Virginia’s gross domestic product,” Cassidy said.

Del. Danica Roem said in a tweet that she is extremely disappointed to see groups advocating for bills like HB 395 to be watered down or delayed.

“We’re $1.50/hr behind West Virginia right now,” Roem tweeted. “You don’t see an uprising of West Virginian business leaders demanding the government lower their minimum wage to match ours.”

Cassidy said history shows that increasing the minimum wage during a recession has been successful in bringing the economy back. HB 395 is currently pending signature by Northam with a deadline of April 11.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.