The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Kim Bobo

Over the last decade, Virginia’s House and Senate Commerce and Labor committees pretty much ignored the labor side of the equation. Ranked the top state for doing business, Virginia is also ranked the worst state for workers.

Addressing Virginia’s pitiful labor protections and raising a few core standards is long overdue. A recent study by Oxfam America named Virginia the worst state in the nation for workers based on three categories — wage policies, worker protections and workers’ rights to organize.

During the last General Assembly, a few Republican legislators, such as Sen. Frank Wagner, Del. Ronnie Campbell and Del. Jay Leftwich, understood that you can be both pro-business and pro-worker, and introduced legislation to stop or deter wage theft. But most of Virginia’s Republican legislators touted the commonwealth’s pro-business climate and repeated the myth that the only way Virginia could keep its pro-business reputation and strong economy was by ignoring worker rights. 

With the shift in the political makeup of Virginia’s House and Senate, worker rights will finally be a priority for the House and Senate Commerce and Labor committees. Gov. Ralph Northam has also pledged to make worker rights one of his priorities.

Sen. Dick Saslaw, the most senior ranking Democratic senator, will lead the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. He has already introduced a bill to raise the minimum wage from its poverty-wage level of $7.25 per hour to $10 per hour and to increase it by $1 each year until it reaches $15. Advocates may push for other ways to move towards $15 and removal of some state minimum wage exemptions. It’s likely that some legislation to increase the minimum wage will pass.

Del. Jeion Ward, who works professionally as a labor organizer with the Virginia Federation of Teachers, will lead the House Commerce and Labor Committee. She will certainly make sure the committee hears labor’s concerns such as prevailing wage and project labor agreements. Repealing “Right to Work” laws in Virginia will be a tough fight, but it is a top priority for labor unions in the state. 

The new configuration of both houses, especially the composition of the committees, will likely allow basic labor protections and standards to be considered. Several bills will raise core standards for workers. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy is championing a paid sick day standard. Close to 41 percent of private sector workers (1.2 million workers) in Virginia have no paid sick days or any paid time off.

Workers without paid sick days often go to work sick and send children to school when they are sick. Establishing a paid sick day standard would address this crisis and have a broad impact on workers and public health. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Favola and Del. Elizabeth Guzman, would require employers with six or more employees to provide five paid sick days a year to full-time workers.

Several modest provisions to strengthen Virginia’s laws against wage theft will be introduced. Virginia’s wage laws allow people to file complaints with the state Department of Labor and Industry, but workers can be fired for doing so. Legislation that would add protection against retaliation for filing a complaint should pass. DOLI is woefully understaffed and so additional staff may be added to the budget.

In most states, workers who are victims of wage theft can either file a complaint with the state agency or they can take their claims to court. Virginia needs to create a “private cause of action” so attorneys can get reasonable attorney fees for representing workers in court. Creating a private cause of action is a cost-effective way to increase enforcement against wage theft and it levels the playing field for businesses that are playing by the rules.

Farmworkers in Virginia have very few common-sense (human decency) protections and they are currently exempt from the state minimum wage (advocates are working to remove this exemption). We expect to see legislation that would ensure that farmworkers have water and shade in summer, implement restrictions on child labor in tobacco fields and require improvements for farmworker housing. Some of these proposals should pass.

Virginia’s economy is doing well, but it could do much better if its workers were paid better, treated better and good businesses weren’t put at a competitive disadvantage by employers who steal wages. Worker rights will finally be back on the agenda in Virginia.

Kim Bobo is executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and author of “Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Workers are Not Getting Paid and What We Can Do About It.”