Push to extend minimum wage increase to farmworkers voted down by Virginia Senate

Caroline County Virginia soybean field
A soybean field in Caroline County. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)

When the General Assembly voted last year to ramp up Virginia’s minimum wage to $12, agricultural employees were among a handful of groups excluded from the increase — an exemption that traces its roots to Jim Crow-era segregation.

Lawmakers in the Senate said Monday they stand by that decision, voting down legislation passed by the House of Delegates that would have extended the state’s employment laws to farmworkers for the first time.

“I understand the exuberance and I understand the need to move forward, but we just had a robust discussion on this last year,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, one of 10 lawmakers on the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee who opposed the legislation.

Lewis and others said it was too soon to revisit the deal the House and Senate reached on the issue, noting the first increase hasn’t taken effect yet. Under the legislation, the minimum wage will rise from $7.25 an hour to $9.50 on May 1. In 2022, it is scheduled to increase again to $11 an hour before rising to $12 an hour in 2023.

Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, who proposed the legislation to include farmworkers in the increase, called the historical exclusion of farmworkers from federal employment protections a relic of the Jim Crow era.

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Farmworkers were excluded from the federal minimum wage when it was adopted in 1938. At the time, most were African American, and Southern representatives in Congress objected to White and Black workers being placed on the same pay scale.

The exemption has been preserved in many states, including Virginia.

“It was a deliberate exclusion of Black workers and other minorities,” Ward said. “When we see any remnants of these Jim Crow laws, we must pull them out by the roots, and that’s what this bill does.”

The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP endorsed the bill, as did the AFL-CIO.

Farm industry groups argued that most farms already pay their laborers more than $15 an hour, but that requiring a higher wage would strain an already struggling sector of the state’s economy. They also said that perishable nature of farm products and the per-piece wage structure most farmers use is critical to meeting tight harvest windows. And they noted that farmworkers are guaranteed pay equal to at least the federal minimum wage, which sits at $7.25 an hour.

The debate resurfaced arguments from last year’s session about whether the minimum wage should be the same in all regions of the state, something lawmakers said the intend to study in the coming years. “There are differences and it is going to have a tremendous, disparate impact regionally on Virginia’s biggest industry,” Lewis said.