Opinion: Commentary: New Laws Empower Workers in Effect May 1

Opinion: Commentary: New Laws Empower Workers in Effect May 1

Long awaited increase in Virginia’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to a new rate of $9.50 an hour as of May 1

It is appropriate that on May 1st, May Day - a day workers are recognized by the international labor movement, much like our Labor Day — a handful of new laws to empower workers will go into effect. It also coincides with President Biden’s executive order creating a task force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which will be charged with encouraging union organizing. This Saturday there will be four new labor laws — ones we passed last year during the 2020 session. Normally, laws that are passed during session go into effect on the first day of July. But, these laws were amended by the Governor during the 2020 Reconvened Session with a delayed effective date to this May, 2021. At a time when our working families are struggling more than ever, this year's May Day, and the pro-worker laws that come with it, cannot come at a better time.

The one that will have the most immediate and widest impact around the Commonwealth is the long awaited increase in the minimum wage from the current federal minimum of the past 12 years of $7.25 an hour to a new rate of $9.50 an hour. Not until the Democrats finally won control of both the House and the Senate chambers was such a raise to minimum wage earners possible. Even so, farmworkers were not included and are still under the current federal minimum wage.

On Jan. 1, 2022, the minimum wage will rise again to $11 an hour and again one year later to top out at $12 an hour. The law did include a re-enactment provision that requires the General Assembly to vote for them again, to $13.50 an hour in 2025 and then to $15 an hour in 2026. But, those final two raises are contingent upon a new vote which is essentially the fate of any new bill. Studies show that an increase in Virginia's minimum wage will lead to increased economic activity and will greatly benefit all workers, particularly women, people of color, and seniors. This should be the first of many steps we take to treat our essential workers with more than lip service.

The second law that goes into effect on Saturday is the Prevailing Wage Act which I amended with my bill this session to clarify that prevailing wage applies to transportation projects too. This law requires contractors for all state public works projects to pay workers a prevailing wage rate in accordance with the federal Davis-Bacon Act, unless the contracts are for less than $250,000, as well as enables local governments to adopt prevailing wage ordinances. The Commonwealth’s Department of Labor and Industry will be responsible for setting and reviewing prevailing wage rates, in coordination with the federal government. Numerous Northern Virginia localities, including Fairfax and Alexandria, are looking to adopt such an ordinance. Prevailing wage laws will ensure that our state and local public works projects provide good-paying jobs for local residents, benefit local contractors, and promote workforce development.

Alexandria just passed the first collective bargaining ordinance in Virginia thanks to our third new state law, which exists in 47 other states and used to be the law in Virginia until 1977, permitting localities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employees. Each local governmental entity may adopt its own ordinance to expand the rights of its workers. In Alexandria, the City Council unanimously approved the ordinance that gives city employees the right to bargain about most workplace issues, including pay, benefits, grievance procedures and other disputes. This ordinance will now serve as a good example for cities and counties across Virginia. To be able to negotiate agreements covering large workforce groups is both more efficient and effective than having to deal with each worker on an individual basis that is too often subjective, less fair, and more onerous. As Virginians, how we treat our teachers, firefighters, public safety, and general employees reflects our values as a Commonwealth. Indeed, I am glad that we are taking this important step to give our public servants a meaningful voice on the job. Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties are all considering similar ordinances now that they are allowed to do so.

Our fourth and final new law is the Project Labor Agreements Act that allows state and local bodies to require project labor agreements with organized labor when contracting for construction, manufacture, maintenance, or operation of public works projects. The legislation reversed a prohibition on writing this requirement into state bids. On too many occasions, the taxpayers have paid the price for cheap labor. Project Labor Agreements will give us the maximum return on our investments by ensuring our construction projects are done on-time and on-budget with maximum community benefits.