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Minimum Wage, LGBT Bias Ban Part of Larger Virginia Dem Agenda

Dec. 16, 2019, 10:45 AM

A $15 minimum wage in Virginia is only the beginning of a long list of labor and employment proposals the state legislature’s new Democratic majority is likely to consider beginning next month.

Bills covering LGBT discrimination, project labor agreements, public-sector collective bargaining, and workplace bias based on hairstyle are among the legislation slated for the General Assembly’s 2020 session. The legislative package could mean big changes for Virginia employers looking to stay in compliance with the law.

Unions and worker rights advocates are optimistic after Virginia Democrats won majority control of the state House and Senate in last month’s elections. The labor and employment proposals will have to compete for time, however, with a big agenda that spans gun violence, climate change, and abortion, to name a few.

“We feel that it’s time to do a Virginia workers agenda,” said Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO. “These people were elected on the hope that things will change in Virginia.”

Groups such as the AFL-CIO aren’t guaranteed their full wish list, as Democrats hold only a narrow 21-19 majority in the Senate.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also has voiced reservations about repealing the state’s “right to work” law. The decades-old law prevents employers from requiring union membership or payment of union dues as a condition of employment. Crouse-Mays said her group wants to repeal it and sees signs of public support, namely that Virginia voters rejected a proposal in 2016 to add the right-to-work language to the state constitution.

Also due to the new Democratic majority, Virginia is expected to become the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—as proposed in S.J.R. 1. Further action from Congress could be needed for the amendment to succeed, since Congress approved the amendment in 1972 with a seven-year deadline for three-fourths of states to ratify it.

Wage, Anti-Bias Bills Already Filed

More than a dozen labor and employment bills have been prefiled for the Assembly’s 2020 session, which is set to begin Jan. 8. These include variations of a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years, plus a few bills addressing the status of tipped workers relative to the minimum wage.

The bills filed so far are “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D), one of two majority whips for the upcoming session.

Among the bills already filed is S.B. 7, sponsored by the Senate’s incoming majority leader, Sen. Richard Saslaw (D). It would raise the hourly wage floor to $10 on July 1, 2020, and then increase it by a dollar per year until it reaches $15 in 2025.

If the proposal becomes law, Virginia would join seven other states and the District of Columbia that have enacted a plan to phase in a $15 minimum wage. Virginia currently follows the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.

The $15 wage plan was part of the campaign strategy for Democratic candidates in the recent state elections and is popular with the public, said Chris Jankowski, a Republican political consultant in Virginia.

He also predicted a proposal to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT people would pass the legislature, likely with some Republican support in addition to the Democratic sponsors. S.B. 23 and H.B. 21 both call for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of categories protected from bias under Virginia law.

Other bills filed include S.B. 8 to require prevailing wages on state-contracted projects, S.B. 48 to ban retaliation against workers who file wage nonpayment complaints, S.B. 49 to let the state’s labor commissioner investigate nonpayment complaints, and S.B. 50 to ban workplace discrimination based on hairstyles or textures that historically are associated with race.

‘Right to Work’ Repeal?

In the area of employment law, the state’s right-to-work law might be the most controversial—as one that unions have long fought to repeal while the business community champions it as crucial to the state’s image as a business-friendly state.

The governor has cast doubt on a repeal of the law, most recently at a Nov. 25 meeting attended by leaders of major Virginia companies. His office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Lopez said Democratic leadership in the House still is deciding whether repealing the law will be a high priority.

At least one House member, Del. Lee Carter (D), vowed to push for a repeal in 2020 with or without the governor’s support.

“Opposition doesn’t stop me from putting in good bills. And repealing R2W is a good bill,” Carter wrote in a Nov. 25 tweet. “I’m gonna introduce it, and I’m gonna fight like hell to get it to the Governor’s desk. And if he vetoes it, he’ll be the one who has to own that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com