RICHMOND – Two proposals aimed at weakening or outright halting the incremental increase of Virginia’s minimum wage advanced in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates Monday.
The first measure – House Bill 296 sponsored by Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County – would change the definition of wages to include a payment to healthcare benefits on behalf of an employee. House Bill 320, introduced by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, would freeze the minimum wage at its current rate of $11 per hour and repeal provisions paving the way for annual adjustments as determined by the Department of Labor and Industry.
Both proposals cleared the House on second reading by a voice vote and could be up for a final vote in the chamber as early as Tuesday.
McNamara once again underscored that his legislation would not remove any provisions related to increasing the state wage. Instead, the paid wage plus the cost of healthcare benefit together would need to meet the current $11 minimum, growing with the planned increments.
“I wanted to reassure the other side of the aisle, the title of this bill says it removes certain provisions relating to increasing the state wage,” McNamara, a small business owner, said on the House floor Monday. “This bill does not – and I repeat – does not repeal the minimum wage or any of the components in the minimum wage, including the accelerators, the reenactment clauses, and the legislation that currently exists.”
His bill would allow an employer to calculate the amount of healthcare benefits afforded directly to an employee as part of that total wage, McNamara said. “It makes no difference, no savings to the employer, it provides flexibility so that the employer can best serve the employee,” he said. “There are many situations where an employee would be better off if they are a part-time employee to have the benefit of an employer-sponsored healthcare plan as opposed to the wages of those that the employer healthcare plan would be offsetting.”
When speaking to his proposal next on the agenda, Freitas joked that his measure does exactly what McNamara said his bill wouldn’t do. “It stops the process of there being an incremental increase up to up to $15 in the next couple of years,” he said.
The state’s minimum wage is currently set at $11, after the Democratic majority in the General Assembly voted in 2020 to gradually increase it from $7.25 to $9.50, effective Jan. 1, 2021. But then-Gov. Ralph Northam amended the measure to delay the first increase to May 1 of last year — providing employers an additional four months to recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic before the law went into effect. The wage then increased to $11 on Jan. 1 and is set to go up once again to $12 in 2023. Further increases to $13.50 in 2025 and $15 in 2026 are contingent on the General Assembly’s enactment by July 1, 2024.
“I have it on good theological guidance that nothing in this bill is going to cause you to be cast into eternal darkness, so if you were concerned about that, don’t worry about that,” Freitas said, referring to previous remarks by House Democrats appealing to the consciousness of Republicans considering to vote for his proposal.
Del. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk, had previously reminded lawmakers of their obligation to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” citing Matthew 22:36-40. “I am going out on a limb to say that we all subscribe to a higher power that requires us to love our neighbors like we love ourselves,” Graves said Monday. “But what about our neighbors in Scott or Smyth County, or Norfolk and Virginia Beach? Do we not love them enough to raise the floor? Do we not love them enough to raise the minimum standard to a level that continues to help workers earn a living wage?”
Graves also said that increasing the minimum wage improves employee morale, which translates into more tangible benefits such as increased employee retention and a reduction of turnover and training cost. “Increasing the minimum wage will provide a boost to economic growth as consumer spending typically increases along with wages. Increasing the minimum wage will reduce government welfare, because taxpayers need to stop subsidizing these multi-billion dollar corporation payrolls just because they want higher profit at the expense of their workers,” she said.
But Freitas took what he called a more practicable approach to minimum wage laws.
“When we look at what minimum wage laws actually do, we keep hearing arguments with respect to intentions, as if you care about people that are making low wages, then of course you are going to vote to raise the minimum wage,” he said. “If only reality was that simple.”
If Virginia decided to raise the minimum wage to $15 because it would lift people out of poverty, why stop there, Freitas asked. “Why not $25, why not $50, why not $100, why not mandate as a body that everyone in the commonwealth of Virginia be wealthy?”
Freitas said that the minimum wage is entry-level pay that allows employees to build work credentials and gain education and on-the-job training and other lessons learned to move up the economic ladder. “But when you price those people out of the labor market, when you tell somebody you are not allowed to hire somebody who wants to work at a particular rate because that’s the job that they can get, I think that’s an arrogant imposition on behalf of the government,” he said.
But Del. Jeion A. Ward, D-Hampton, said that 97% of minimum wage workers in Virginia are 20 years or older, and 70% of them work at least 35 hours per week. “When the pandemic arrived, we spoke so nicely of them, they were our essential workers, they kept the grocery stores clean, they worked in our hospitals, they cooked the food for us,” she said.
“We don’t hear much about them today, but they are still with us and they are still working hard,” Ward said. “We heard a lot about these kitchen table issues, what do you think these minimum wage workers are talking about around their little kitchen tables? They are trying to find a way to buy a winter coat for at least one of their children.”
If the Republican-sponsored minimum wage proposals clear the House, it is unlikely that they will hold up in the state Senate, where Democrats still hold a 21-19 majority, if the recent failure of a Republican-led attempt at permanently capping the minimum wage at its current level, sponsored by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, is any indication.