A group of Virginia activists is encouraging employers in Alexandria to pay workers about twice the hourly wage required by federal law, using window stickers and publicity to apply social pressure.
The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the Virginia Theological Seminary launched an effort Monday to certify businesses and organizations that pay from $11.23 to $15.70 per hour, the latter of which is the wage that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor calculated last year would cover living expenses for a single adult in Alexandria.
Kim Bobo, the Richmond-based executive director of the interfaith center, said it’s nearly impossible for individuals paid $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage that is required in Virginia, to support themselves — much less a family — in the expensive Washington suburbs.
“Over time, we can help raise the floor in Richmond, Alexandria and hopefully other communities across the state,” Bobo said Monday morning at a kickoff event where three organizations in Alexandria — the seminary, yarn retailer Fibre Space and federal contractor Business Management Associates — were certified.
“Success is going to take several years,” Bobo said. “If we could be at 50 by the end of this year, and 150 by the end of 2019, we’ll have a critical mass.”
The nationwide effort to boost the minimum wage to a “living wage” has found fertile soil in the Washington area, despite opposition from employers who say it forces them to cut staff and unduly burdens small businesses.
The D.C. Council voted two years ago to boost the hourly minimum wage to $15, and the Montgomery County Council followed suit in late 2017. Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Ben Jealous, backs a statewide $15 minimum.
But there has been no parallel government action in Virginia, where cities and counties are forbidden by state law to raise the minimum wage at the local level. A bill sponsored by Del. Mark H. Levine (D-Alexandria) last session to create an exemption to that law didn’t get a hearing.
The Alexandria City Council tried unsuccessfully to win state permission in 2000 to raise the local minimum wage to about $8. The council has since required the city government, its contractors and subcontractors to pay workers at least $15 per hour.
Danielle Romanetti, owner of the Fibre Space yarn store, said she’s paid a living wage for several years because she believes it shows her four highly trained, full-time employees that she appreciates them, and “It’s to my advantage as a retailer to have employees who live as close as possible to the store.”
“You can’t sell boutique prices, with uniquely selected goods, without compensating your staff appropriately,” Romanetti said, adding that she believes the same is true for many small businesses in Old Town.
Organizers of the living-wage effort said they have found several business owners in Alexandria who are already paying more than the $15.70 per hour required for top-level certification.
That has prompted the program’s founders to consider setting up a “platinum” level of certification, above the current “aspirational,” “silver” and “gold” levels.
Bobo and the seminary’s Rev. David Gortner, who co-chairs the local program, said their effort was based on a similar grass-roots initiative in Asheville, N.C. They hope to launch additional efforts soon in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Blacksburg and the Front Royal area, and perhaps Arlington County.