Virginia lawmakers vote to raise the minimum wage to $12 over three years

By: - March 8, 2020 12:17 am

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, carried legislation in the House of Delegates to raise the states minimum wage. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On what was scheduled to be the last day of Virginia’s legislative session, lawmakers struck a deal late Saturday night to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 over the next three years.

Democrats, many of whom ran on increasing the minimum wage to $15, said it was the best compromise they could reach.

“This legislation is for people who clean our hotel rooms, our offices, long after we have gone home to be with our families,” said Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who carried the legislation in the House.

The bill would increase the wage to $9.50 an hour on Jan. 1, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023.

It also calls for a study of a regional minimum wage – an approach for which lawmakers in the Senate had been advocating. After that study is complete, lawmakers would vote in 2024 whether to continue increasing the wage to $13.50 in 2025 and $15 in 2026.

If lawmakers do not vote to continue increases, the state would begin increasing the wage annually to account for inflation.

“People would be able to live a little better until we get that study done,” Ward said.

The legislation strikes existing code that exempts employers from paying minimum wage to domestic workers, home health care workers, pieceworkers and people with disabilities. But it retains exemptions for agricultural workers, students workers, au pairs participating in a federal exchange program and temporary foreign workers. It also allows employers to pay workers less who are enrolled in on-the-job training, but only for a maximum of 90 days.

Democrats in the House and the Senate have been at odds over the legislation for the better part of the 60-day legislative session.

The House had passed legislation which would have taken the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2026 with no intermediary votes. But the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrower 21-19 majority, had pushed an approach that would have halted state-wide increases at $11.50 an hour, with smaller increases after that made on a regional basis tied to average household incomes.

“This is a real compromise for people who have been fighting for a $15 minimum wage,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “And I hope the body understands this is not where some of us want to be right now. … However I’m going to vote for it.”

Democrats promised to raise the minimum wage. Now they have to figure out how much, how fast and for whom.

The legislation was opposed by nearly every major business group in the state and Republican lawmakers in both chambers voted against it unanimously, arguing it would harm businesses, force prices to rise and make it harder for students to find summer jobs. Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, described recently encountering a robot sweeping a floor in a grocery store to illustrate the threat of automation.

“This is better, but still really bad,” Head said. “You want to take care of (employees), but you also want to make sure you’ve got customers. Every time you raise a wage, you’ve got to raise a price.”

Democrats argued it was unrealistic to assume the only people making minimum wage are teenagers working summer jobs.

“It’s not just about kids scooping ice cream in the summertime,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “We all ran on raising the minimum wage. That’s why we’re here.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate adopted identical bills Saturday and finalized passage on Sunday morning, sending the legislation to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

They had until Sunday at 6 p.m. to cast the votes under a deal legislative leaders scrambled to reach as the session’s midnight deadline approached, at which point all pending legislation would have died.

Lawmakers gave themselves until Thursday to approve the state’s next budget plan, a copy of which leaders said would be posted online Sunday afternoon.

Key issues remain outstanding, including legislation to decriminalize marijuana, legalize casino gambling and sports betting and give local governments authority to remove Confederate monuments.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, had held onto the redistricting reform amendment that passed the House Friday over opposition from most House Democrats, fueling theories that her caucus was planning a parliamentary ambush to kill it at the last second. The House eventually sent the amendment over to the Senate as part of the deal to extend the session.

“This session has been historic in terms of the unprecedented amount of progress we have achieved for the Commonwealth,” a spokesman for Filler-Corn said.

Mercury reporter Graham Moomaw contributed to this story. 

This story was updated Sunday morning to reflect the legislation’s final passage Sunday morning.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.