Raise the Minimum Wage: The Time is Now
By Dominique Martin (he/him)
Policy Research Analyst
Our economy should work for all of us, not just for big corporations or the wealthy few. This means that all Virginians deserve to live with dignity, have financial security in their day to day lives, and be able to plan for the future. During the 2020 legislative session, the General Assembly took a significant step forward by passing legislation that would raise the state’s minimum wage -- which would provide real relief for nearly 800,000 Virginia workers by 2023.
Virginia’s 2019 elections and the 2020 General Assembly session were both historic events. Through the ballot box, Virginians signaled a desire for progress and for legislators that would center their needs. The 2020 General Assembly passed several historic bills, including HB395, which would raise Virginia’s minimum wage to $12 by 2023 and put us on a path towards a $15 minimum wage. This legislation is now on Governor Northam’s desk, and he has until April 11th to take action before state lawmakers return to Richmond on April 22nd for the reconvened session.
A raise to the state’s minimum wage is long overdue. Virginia’s minimum wage has not increased since 2009, and compared to the typical cost of living in the state, Virginia’s minimum wage is the lowest in the country. Virginia’s low minimum wage has forced many families to live paycheck to paycheck, putting them at serious financial risk if for any reason a paycheck is missed. Workers often have to make difficult choices such as choosing to go to work instead of seeing a doctor if they or their family members are sick. HB395 would raise wages and increase financial flexibility for Virginia families.
The need for a higher minimum wage is more apparent now with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. COVID-19 has upended our normal routines and required unprecedented actions by elected leaders to slow the spread of the virus. Our public health and our economy have been severely impacted by its spread. Families are desperately calling for support from elected officials in the wake of job losses, furloughs, and reductions in hours caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been a record number of unemployment applications totaling over 6.6 million nationwide, as of April 2nd. At 158,774, there have been more unemployment claims in Virginia since the week of March 7th, than all of last year. Virginia is also expected to lose at least a billion dollars in tax revenue both in 2020 and 2021 because of the overall lack of economic activity due to the virus’s spread and containment policies. Because of this, some legislative victories from the 2020 legislative session may be in jeopardy, such as the minimum wage increase.
COVID-19 has already disrupted the economic health of Virginia families, and public policies, such as an increased minimum wage, are vital tools in strengthening economic opportunities and helping families thrive. Low-wage earners, who are more likely to be women and people of color, may be less prepared to deal with a crisis, such as COVID-19, due to a lack of savings or disposable income.
Yet, some low-wage workers, such as grocery store clerks, are considered essential workers during this crisis. This moment has shown that their work, and the work of all low-wage workers, is critical to maintaining the livelihoods and health of families across Virginia, and their contribution to the economy and their local communities should be valued and compensated.
Governor Northam has taken proactive steps to address some of the issues most pertinent to low-income households during this crisis. He has halted eviction proceedings and utility service disconnections, expanded access to unemployment insurance, and used his executive power to enact measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
Now, he must keep an eye towards the future and sign HB395 without delay, so we can continue to make progress on creating an economy that works for all of us.
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