Virginia Democrats vote to increase minimum wage as Youngkin signals opposition

Virginia Democrats vote to increase minimum wage as Youngkin signals opposition

(AP photo/Steve Helber)

By Carolyn Fiddler

January 24, 2024

After winning majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate last November, newly empowered Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly immediately made it clear that raising Virginia’s minimum wage would be a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Now Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is threatening to veto the effort before a bill even receives a full floor vote.

Barely more than a week into the 2024 General Assembly session, Democrats voted to move forward on House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1, the very first pieces of legislation filed by the new Democratic majorities. The bills are currently making  their way through the committee process and are expected to come to the House and Senate floors for full votes in the coming weeks.

Del. Jeion Ward and Sen. Louise Lucas introduced the companion bills to raise Virginia’s minimum wage from the current rate of $12 per hour to $13.50 in 2025 and to $15 in 2026. This continues the efforts Democrats began after they won full majority control of the legislature in 2019, when they began gradually raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to the current $12 rate.

“This is an important step in ensuring that hardworking families do not have to choose between putting food on their tables and life saving medications,” said Democratic Del. Kathy Tran when the measures were first introduced. “I hope that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle will join us as we work to advance these crucial pieces of legislation.” 

Republicans have uniformly opposed the legislation thus far, voting against it in committee hearings and claiming without evidence that increasing the minimum wage would have a negative economic impact on less affluent parts of Virginia.

Democrats countered this argument by pointing out that inflation and the resulting increase in cost of living makes raising the state’s minimum wage a matter of urgency. Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell pointed to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, which found that $12 in July 2020 was equal to $14.21 in December 2023.

Democrats also highlighted the fact that Republicans are repeating many of the same fears about raising the minimum wage that they expressed before it was raised to the current $12 rate, none of which have come to pass.

“Those of us who were here when [Ward] led the last effort to do this remember all the hand-wringing and the predictions that people were going to lose their jobs and the economy was going to tank and businesses were going to shutter,” said Democratic Del. Rip Sullivan. “Well, I’ve sat through several speeches that our governor has given the last several months touting, thankfully, historic low unemployment in Virginia. Wages are up, incomes are up, more Virginians are working than ever before. Those predictions of doom and gloom just have not happened.”

While Youngkin was highlighting the state’s economic success at an event highlighting Virginia businesses this week, he suggested he would oppose  Democrats’ proposals to increase the minimum wage should they pass both chambers of the legislature and land on his desk for his signature into law. The governor believes that the increase isn’t necessary, claiming without evidence that “the market is handling it.”

“If you go around and see what people are paying around the commonwealth of Virginia, there are very rare circumstances where people are paying minimum wage. And yet here we are with lots of economic counsel that says that it harms job growth,” Youngkin told reporters on Tuesday. “So the market is working. Virginians are earning lots of money. We’ve now gotten our labor participation rate back up to where it was before the pandemic, and now we’re at a 12-year high.”

According to a state study completed last year, about 500,000 Virginians made $12 or less per hour as of 2021, with one million workers earning $15 or less. The study did note that data limitations make measuring the size and makeup of Virginia’s minimum wage-earning population “challenging.”

“While Virginia’s minimum wage population could be characterized as small in absolute terms, Virginia nonetheless has the ninth largest minimum wage workforce in the country in absolute terms and the eight[h] largest in terms of percentage of hourly workers,” the study found.

A 2021 poll from Christopher Newport University found that a majority of Virginians (53%) support increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and 2023 polls from Virginia Commonwealth University found that Virginians rank the rising cost of living as the most important issue facing state residents. 

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.

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