“I am still just shining from the power that we had,” said 17-year-old Abby Garber. She and other youth activists helped bring down a bill aiming to pay teens under 18 less than minimum wage.
Imagine working in the same position and putting in the same number of hours as a coworker, but making less money than them—not because of your talent or skill level, but because of your age.
Republican-led House Bill (HB) 1669 proposed that Virginians under age 18 make the higher of the two: either $9 per hour—that’s three dollars less than the commonwealth’s minimum wage—or the federal minimum wage, which stands at $7.25 per hour.
Minimum Age for Minimum Wage
Mel Borja, worker power policy analyst at The Commonwealth Institute (TCI) for Fiscal Analysis, said that the bill went against the group’s research on the importance of minimum wage.
“HB 1669 is what we would consider a sub-minimum wage bill, where it carves out the minimum wage for, like, a particular group of workers,” Borja said. “In this case it happened to be teenagers, which was an interesting twist.”
Borja called the bill an affront to some of the youngest workers in the commonwealth, noting that it failed to recognize their skills and the hours that they worked.
“Work is a learning experience for every worker. Every day, you go into your workplace, you’re learning something new or you are practicing something or you are doing something that you’ve done multiple times before and you’re constantly tweaking and learning and collaborating with your coworkers,” Borja said. “That is not exclusive to people just because they’re under 18.”
Abby Garber, a 17-year-old from Rockingham County, raised concern about individuals potentially making less money on the simple grounds of their age.
“So many of my friends have to work to support their families. It isn’t just, you know, me, who I’ve been saving for college and for a future career, but it’s also my friends who rely on this income to be able to survive,” Garber said. “It puts so many families and young people at such a disadvantage. Young people really took that to heart.”
The bill also concerned Felix Hedberg, a high school senior from the Richmond area.
“I was like, wow, this is something that really, truly affects me and would change my life in a very material way—and the lives of people around me—if this were to pass,” Hedberg said.
Just days away from turning 18 herself, she highlighted the legislation’s unfairness.
“It [was] something that kind of brought the kind of silliness of the bill into full perspective for me because nothing really is changing about myself and the skills that I have when I turn 18, except I’m going to be 18,” Hedberg said. “And so it really shows [that] I’m not any less skilled. I’m not gaining this whole new mindset or talent that adds to the workforce. It kind of proved my point in the sense that I’m bringing what I’m bringing to the table regardless of my age.”
Both Garber and Hedberg are part of the Coalition for Virginia’s Future (CVF), a group that aims to uplift youth-led organizing work and promote a youth-inclusive vision for the commonwealth.
As part of the coalition’s lobby day on Jan. 23, teenagers from across the commonwealth came together to speak to their representatives. Garber, CVF’s co-executive director, said the group talked to about 75 Virginia lawmakers concerning HB 1669 and “many others.”
“We were able to share with them exactly why we as all minors—because the lobby day was led by minors entirely—why we did not support this bill,” Garber said, “It was an incredibly powerful experience and it left many of our lobbyists feeling very heard, but also eager to do more.”
Something incredible happened when the students returned to their various schools. Word spread among their classmates about how they stood up for pay fairness regardless of age. Garber said that in her school, she heard conversations “everywhere” about the bill as it worked its way through the General Assembly process. She gathered that there was a collective desire to do more.
“They felt that we simply couldn’t sit back and let this happen on our watch. And so what we did was we continued to schedule virtual lobby meetings, this time, and we set up a forum so people could send out emails to all committee members to stop it in committee. We encouraged people to testify in subcommittee prior to that,” Garber said. “We made a ruckus about this and we made it known that youth deserve to be paid equally for our equal work.”
It was a similar story at Hedberg’s school in Richmond. Once other students learned about the bill, they started sharing the news on social media. HB 1669 garnered so much attention that people who were friends with Hedberg’s friends knew about it.
“That kind of attention and circulation and public comment was really, really important for us to kind of get that people-power win,” Hedberg said. “It was really, really fulfilling.”
Dead Before Crossover
Much to the relief of the youth activists, HB 1669 never made it to a vote on the full House floor.
The bill even experienced pushback from some of patron Del. Daniel “Danny” Marshall’s Republican colleagues, although Virginia Republicans have historically fought against raising the minimum wage and sought to freeze its increase in Virginia.
“It was just an overall bad bill, and I think that lawmakers recognize that,” Borja said. “I think you can see from the voting record in subcommittee, as well as committee, that it didn’t fall strictly on party lines. I think that is indicative that at least some lawmakers recognize, ‘This is going to hurt people in my district, and I have the ability to do something about that.’”
There’s another reason, too, that likely stopped the bill in its tracks: the power of the voices of the individuals it would’ve impacted.
“We were able to, luckily, have it stopped from getting voted on, on the full House floor, which was a true testament to the power of young voices,” Garber said. “Because I firmly believe that this would not have happened without the buzz that was created.”
Hedberg also shared a story about how youth activists played an important role. While waiting to testify against the bill on Zoom, Hedberg said one of the legislators heckled that there weren’t any individuals under age 18 who showed up to speak against the bill, only to later discover that there were several minors waiting for their turn to speak in the virtual testimony space.
When the bill failed to reach crossover, the youth activists gained valuable victory.
“We had our voices heard, and it was beautiful,” Garber said. “I am still just shining from the power that we had.”
There’s still work to be done in terms of minimum wage in Virginia.
Current Virginia law outlines exemptions to the state-determined minimum wage, which Borja highlighted in an online article.
The TCI article noted that in addition to those under 16 years of age, people who are excluded from Virginia’s current minimum wage law include:
- Farm employees or farm laborers
- Anyone under 18 who works for their parents
- Summer camp counselors
- Anyone under 18 enrolled in high school, college, or trade school who works 20 hours or less a week
- Students on work-study
- People who babysit less than 10 hours a week
There’s also the wage gap, which impacts multiple groups. Last year, TCI and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy uncovered data that showed those hardest hit by the wage gap teetered the lines of both racism and sexism.
The research revealed:
- Women of color were hit the hardest by wage inequality in Virginia, with Black women being paid 59 cents for every dollar paid to white men and Latina women being paid 52 cents
- The wage gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white workers widened from 72 cents for every dollar in 2001 to 68 cents for every dollar in 2021
- Black workers in Virginia were paid 72 cents for every dollar a white worker was paid in 1979, and 74 cents for every dollar a white worker made in 2021
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to push for expansion of the minimum wage—which is currently on a path to meet $15 in January 2026, notwithstanding Republican attempts to derail the increase.
“Instead of making more exemptions, we can advocate to patch holes in existing minimum wage law and work to ensure that our minimum wage law reaches at least $15 an hour. Particularly the reenactment of the minimum wage legislation from 2020, it has to be reenacted in order to keep going on that path. So advocacy around the reenactment, I think, is a huge opportunity for people who are specifically interested in minimum wage advocacy.”
If raising and expanding the minimum wage is a reality you’d like to see in Virginia, there are plenty of ways to get involved. Hedberg encouraged activists to submit public comment, testify in person, and pack the committee room full of people who feel the same way. Garber suggested reaching out to a local youth-led organization, paying attention in government class, and getting familiar with the legislation in session.
“We need to be paying attention. We cannot take a backseat to what is happening in our commonwealth. We have to be loud and be proud and say what we believe in because if we didn’t—if we didn’t send 150+ emails, if we didn’t have all those lobby meetings, if we didn’t testify in subcommittee, if we didn’t spread the news via social media and press—then this wouldn’t have happened,” Garber said. “We need to work together to do that because if we did not have a strong coalition, this would not have happened. So engage with us and always watch what your legislature is doing.”