Perhaps you’ve heard.
CNBC named Virginia its top state for business last year — an honorific lawmakers have recited so many times that, were 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.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Education and Labor Committee, had a staffer send congressional research on the subject to several senators and warn that “the original intent behind a regional minimum wage was discriminatory in nature.”
The Commonwealth Institute echoed those concerns, arguing a regional approach would make it more difficult to close the wage gap between white and black workers. “Many of Virginia’s majority-black cities and counties such as Greensville and Sussex are in Southside, which has one of the lowest regional median incomes and therefore would see some of the smallest increases in the minimum wage,” wrote the institute’s Phil Hernandez.
Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, had initially advocated for legislation similar to the House’s, but called the bill that passed last week a good compromise. And on Monday, he told House leaders during a committee meeting Monday that their minimum wage bill had no chance of passing the Senate as drafted, setting the stage for conference negotiations between lawmakers in the two chambers.
The House and Senate are also at odds over legislation that would allow public employee unions representing workers like teachers, firefighters and police officers to engage in collective bargaining. Virginia is currently one of three states to explicitly prohibit the practice.
Lawmakers in both chambers submitted legislation to change that, but the House version broadly gives unions at the state and local level the authority to negotiate employment contracts while the Senate version only allows the practice at the local level, and only if a local board votes to grant workers that authority.
Associations representing local governments and school boards opposed both versions of the legislation, as did Republicans, arguing allowing workers to negotiate the terms of their employment together will increase the cost of doing business and result in tax increases.
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, said concerns are overblown and localities will retain the final say over budgets and salaries. (In either case, public employees are prohibited from striking under existing law.) She declined to speculate, however, on how she expects her legislation to fare when it’s taken up in the Senate. “We’re going to make our case,” she said.
Labor groups say they’re not surprised the Senate has stymied some of their high-profile legislative pushes. Democrats have a narrow majority in the chamber and the party’s caucus tends toward the socially-liberal but unapologetically-pro-business style of governance typified by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“All I’ll say is, hey, voters will hold elected officials accountable for their votes,” said Doris Crouse-Mays, who directs the Virginia AFL-CIO.
That said, she observed that labor groups are making some gains, including bills establishing a prevailing wage for large public construction contracts and implementing tighter protections for low income workers against misclassification, wage theft and fraud.
But if union groups don’t feel like they’re having the best year, business groups certainly don’t feel like they’re coming out on top, either.
“Not great,” said Nicole Riley, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “It probably is as bad as I worried it could be. … Maybe their number one priority didn’t move, but we’re under no illusions this fight is over.”
Perhaps the bi-partisan disappointment suggests lawmakers are striking the right compromise? Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, isn’t having it.
“Sometimes, when everyone’s unhappy, it just means everyone gets screwed,” he said. “Right now Virginia is the worst state for workers, and it looks like it ain’t going to stay that way. But it ain’t going to be the best one, either.”