Gov. Ralph Northam at an event.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam waves as he arrives to speak during a campaign event for Virginia democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at Lubber Run Park, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Arlington, Va. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

RICHMOND – Virginia was recently rated America’s top state for business in a study by CNBC. While conditions for businesses are good, it may surprise you to learn that before this year, the Commonwealth had a reputation for being one of the worst states for workers in America.

In fact, the poverty nonprofit Oxfam America in 2019 released a report which identified Virginia as the worst state for workers in the country. The report evaluated states on three factors including their minimum wage, and at that time Virginia’s was $7.25 per hour, the lowest allowed by federal law. Oxfam also dinged Virginia for failing to have guaranteed sick days, parental leave, and laws that aim to protect workers’ ability to unionize. 

“Historically, the Commonwealth has had a strongly pro-employer legal environment. As in many other Southern states, that approach included right-to-work legislation, restricting the ability of unions to collect fees from non-members,” said University of Virginia Professor of Law and Director of UVA’s Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies Rip Verkerke. 

A Win for Workers and Businesses

This is Virginia’s fifth time winning first place in CNBC’s poll. It previously took the title in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2019. But unlike previous years, this time experts say the Commonwealth gained the title at the same time it increased protections for workers. 

“With the election of a Democratic majority in both houses of the General Assembly, the tide has begun to change,” Verkerke said. “Although it’s too early to portray the Commonwealth as among those jurisdictions most protective of employees, the current blue wave has begun to transform Virginia employment law in significant ways. Virginia is now properly classified as more of a centrist state and no longer a staunchly pro-employer conservative jurisdiction.” 

Since Democrats won the majority of seats in the Virginia Legislature in 2019, the party has worked with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to make improvements in many of the categories that Oxfam America once rated the Commonwealth so poorly in.

These reforms include raising the minimum wage, creating workplace protections against LGBT discrimination, and removing the ban on collective bargaining for local public employees. 

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“I think this new ranking of Virginia as the best state for business is a reflection that if we’re going to have a strong economy, that you can’t be the best state for business without also being a place where workers rights are protected and strengthened. So I took this as a tremendously good sign that says all the advancements in workers rights that we’ve made over the last two years actually strengthen our economy,” said David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512. 

What Reforms Unions Still Want

SEIU Virginia 512 is a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which represents over 4,000 union members in the Northern Virginia region. While labor organizers like Broder say the Commonwealth has made great strides in restoring worker’s rights, it’s still catching up to the standards for worker protections that the rest of the US enjoys already. 

“It’s great that the legislature repealed the ban on collective bargaining rights. Doing so put Virginia in the same category with 47 other states and DC. We’ve really been the outlier in how tremendously anti-worker our Commonwealth has been. So again we’ve taken good steps, we’re not there yet,” Broder said.

Broder says his members are lobbying the Legislature to speed up the Commonwealth’s timetable for increasing the minimum wage. He also says removing the ban on collective bargaining for public employees, while a step forward, also wasn’t enough. Instead, labor organizations say they want those employees to have the legal right to unionize.