Jason Chadwick, left, who has worked for Kroger for 20 years, leads other workers in a chant demanding the reinstatement of hazard pay during a protest outside of the Kroger on Lombardy in Richmond, Va., September 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boye / For the Virginia Mercury)

By Kim Bobo

On Labor Day weekend as we honor America’s workers, we recognize Virginia’s complicated history with worker’s rights. Our legacy of slavery — the ultimate exploitation of workers — left us with many discriminatory and racist laws and few protections for workers.  But the last few years have seen significant strides in creating a more just environment for workers.

Virginia is for workers — almost.

The good news for workers:

In 2018, the General Assembly passed Medicaid expansion, which primarily enabled more than 380,000 low-wage workers to qualify for Medicaid. The General Assembly, with bi-partisan leadership, acknowledged that those who work should be able to afford health care.

In 2019, the General Assembly passed bills (SB 1079 and HB 2473) that remove discriminatory, Jim Crow-era language from Virginia’s minimum wage code. The language read, “Newsboys, shoeshine boys, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters,” jobs often held by Black people, were exempted from earning minimum wage in Virginia. In addition, bills (SB 1696 and HB 2664) were passed in 2019 to require employers to provide paystubs for most workers so they can track their salary and deductions.

In 2020, bills were passed to: protect workers who file complaints with the Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) from retaliation and firing (SB 48 and HB 337); allow DOLI to investigate on behalf of all workers at a worksite and not just on behalf of the one complainant (SB 49 and HB 336); and create the ability for attorneys to represent workers wage theft claims in court (SB 838 and HB 123).  Collectively, the passage of these laws was a major breakthrough for workers.

During the 2020 regular General Assembly, many important laws were put into place to make Virginia a better place for workers. Probably the most important is that Virginia will raise the minimum wage, (SB 7) though the enactment has been delayed till May 2021 due to the pandemic. The hourly minimum wage in Virginia will increase to $9.50 beginning May 1, 2021, then to $11 on Jan. 1, 2022, and to $12 on Jan. 1, 2023. The minimum wage increases of $13.50 on Jan. 1, 2025, and $15 on Jan. 1, 2026 are contingent on the General Assembly’s agreeing to them in 2024 after the Assembly reviews a feasibility study on implementing a regional minimum wage structure. Workers will eventually see a $15 per hour floor for most workers.

Then this summer, Virginia’s Safety and Health Codes board passed the nation’s first comprehensive COVID-19 OSHA standard, albeit a temporary one, to protect workers against the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Virginia now has the strongest health and safety standard in the nation — a first for Virginia thanks to the leadership of Gov. Ralph Northam and the board.

As we consider how workers fare in Virginia this Labor Day, we can collectively be proud of the progress that’s been made in the commonwealth. Unfortunately, we have a few more critical issues to address before we can claim that Virginia is for workers.

The bad news for workers:

1) Virginia needs a paid sick day standard. Every industrialized nation in the world, except for the U.S., has a requirement that employers provide paid sick days to workers. A recently-released poll (sponsored by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and Freedom Virginia), found that more than 83 percent of Virginians support a paid sick day standard. There are bills in the General Assembly Special Session to require COVID-19 paid quarantine leave (HB 5116) which is an important step forward. In Jan. 2021, the General Assembly will have another opportunity to enact a paid sick day standard for Virginia workers during COVID-19 and beyond.

2) Farm workers deserve to be paid minimum wage. Virginia’s minimum wage law continues to exempt farm workers. Bills will be introduced in January to remove the farm worker exemption from Virginia’s minimum wage law.

3) Virginia needs a permanent COVID-19 OSHA standard. Currently, we have a temporary standard that lasts for six months. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like COVID-19 will be gone by the end of the year, so we’ll need to put a permanent COVID-19 OSHA standard in place for 2021 and beyond.

4) Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industries (DOLI) needs more enforcement staff.  It is good to pass the laws described above, but if no one is enforcing the laws, they are meaningless. DOLI is woefully short-staffed and needs to hire more employees to enforce the laws.

These four worker rights improvements aren’t hard to establish. Virginia can continue to be a great place for businesses. And we can be a great place for workers if we continue enacting common sense protections for workers.

Kim Bobo is the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.