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Virginia Democrats push to raise minimum wage, require paid leave

The Capitol in Richmond last February.
The Capitol in Richmond last February. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats are pushing a collection of bills aimed at turning the business-friendly state into one that is buddy-buddy with workers.

The state’s minimum wage, currently set at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, would gradually rise as high as $15 an hour under some measures. In others, workers could receive up to 12 weeks of paid time off for family or medical leave.

With Democrats in control of the Virginia House, Senate and governor’s mansion for the first time in a generation, supporters see a good chance to pass measures meant to give low-wage workers a boost. They say Virginia, ranked the best state for business in July by CNBC, can help them without hurting the business climate.

“This is good for the economy,” Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) said Tuesday ahead of a hearing on her paid-leave bill. “This is good for Virginia.”

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Republicans and business groups warn the measures would be too costly for employers and could put the state’s economy at grave risk. Even some Democrats have moved to tap the brakes.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the most powerful Democrat in the chamber, saw his minimum-wage bill transformed into something less generous during a committee hearing Monday. The effort to rein it in was led by a fellow Democrat, Sen. Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax).

“We do want to be aggressive,” Marsden said in an interview Tuesday. “We want to reach a little bit. But we have to recognize other people see this differently. To be honest with you, we’ve got to hold this commonwealth together. We can’t just have people throwing up their hands and saying, ‘I’m not listened to.’ ”

As introduced, Saslaw’s bill would have raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour starting July 1 and increased it by $1 a year until it hit $15 an hour in 2025. After that, the bill called for increases along with the consumer price index.

But Saslaw was unable to fend off Marsden’s amendments. Marsden wanted slightly slower increases — to $9.75 in July, going up $1 a year for the first few years, then picking up speed so it would still wind up at $15 an hour by July 2025.

The biggest difference in Marsden’s plan is that after the third year, when the minimum would hit $11.75 an hour, employers could count the value of certain health benefits toward the value of the hourly wages. Wages under the proposal would not have to rise above $11.75 as long as the employer made up the difference with a qualifying health plan.

Marsden’s plan also opens the door for a minimum wage that could eventually vary by region, something that Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) said would be essential for rural parts of the state where the cost of living is far lower.

Newman warned that the minimum-wage proposals could have a “devastating impact on the state,” particularly if the rate is not allowed to vary by region.

“You’re imposing a Northern Virginia rate on the rest of the state,” Newman said. “We’re going to destroy jobs all over Virginia.”

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Saslaw expressed frustration with the changes to his bill, saying that the business community would oppose even the most minuscule boost.

“I joked to Tommy, why don’t we put in a bill — $7.26, effective 2050,” he said, referring to Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City). “This is something we need to do.”

Over Saslaw’s objections, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee passed the amended bill Monday and sent it to the Senate Finance Committee to consider the impact it could have on the state budget.

Several House Democrats also have proposed minimum-wage bills, some of which are more aggressive than the one that Saslaw originally introduced. Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton) has a bill that would raise the minimum to $15 an hour by 2023.

That measure and other House bills on the subject advanced from a subcommittee late Tuesday.

Democrats in the House and Senate also have submitted bills that would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, to recover from a serious illness or to care for a family member.

Federal law already allows for time off in those situations, but the leave is unpaid.

The measures would create an insurance fund to be administered by the state. Workers and employers would pay into the fund at a rate of about 0.5 percent of the worker’s salary, the amount to be split evenly between them. For a person making $30,000, that would amount to $75 a year to be paid by the worker and $75 a year for the employer.

Someone eligible for leave would receive 80 percent of their wages for 12 weeks through the fund. The employer could use the wages normally paid to the absent worker to hire a temp or pay overtime to existing employees.

Democrats touting the bill said it would help small businesses bear the cost of workers who need time off.

“Paid family leave is the right thing to do for our economy and the right thing to do for our families,” said former Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, chairwoman of the newly formed Paid Family and Medical Leave Advisory Board. The board was created by the Virginia Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, an advocacy group formed in 2017.

The issue is not a winner with some business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Business. Nicole Riley, NFIB’s state director, said the minimum-wage and family-leave bills would hurt businesses. Defeating them is the group’s top priority for the General Assembly session, she said.

“It’s about allowing business to figure out what works for them and works for their employees,” she said.

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