Last month, a bill to incrementally raise wages in Virginia advanced out of committee and onto the Senate floor.
It was the first time in a decade a proposed minimum wage increase had made it that far.
Hopeful Senate Democrats drove home the need to provide Virginia’s workers with a better living wage. Senator Jennifer McClellan of Richmond described what it was like to take the minimum wage challenge, testing herself to survive on Virginia's existing minimum wage: $7.25 per hour.
“These earners, after housing, have $77 dollars for the week for food, gas, emergencies and everything else they have to pay for. I ran out of money on the second day," McClellan said.
But in the end, Democrats learned the bipartisan support they’d received for the wage hike in committee was all political theater. The two Republicans who voted for the bill -- Majority Leader Tommy Norment and Senator Frank Wagner -- were trying to send an election year message to the business community: Democrats don’t understand the concerns of businesses, but Republicans do.
Norment told his Senate colleagues on the floor, a minimum wage increase would be a job killer.
“A strict, empirical business analysis is not an expression of a lack of empathy or sensitivity to lower income individuals,” Norment said.
The minimum wage bill had fierce opposition from groups like Virginia Retail Federation and Chambers of Commerce.
It died on a vote of 19 to 21, but the minimum wage discussion is likely to get a second life on the campaign trail as every member of the General Assembly gears up for elections in November.
Long-time Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth said Democrats will argue the vote showed Republicans don’t care about working families, while Republicans will paint Democrats as radicals...in the mold of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist.
“Republicans want to remind their business supporters that the Democrats in Virginia are going to start resembling AOC in Congress more than they are going to resemble the Democrats that had control of the assembly the last time Democrats had control of the Assembly in Virginia,” Holsworth said.
VCU labor economist Leslie Stratton says concerns that a minimum wage hike would cause businesses to lay off workers or shut down entirely aren’t without merit.
Stratton points to a study of the $15 minimum wage in Seattle that found many people who already had a full-time job ended up better off.
“Those who are worse off are those who are unable to locate a job, or those whose hours are cut or lose their jobs entirely because of the increase in a minimum wage,” Stratton said.
Stratton said businesses and workers in Virginia’s rural communities, where unemployment is high, would take the hardest hit.
So a wage hike may not be a bulletproof solution to lifting up lower-income workers. But a lot of Virginians still think it’s needed, especially in a state that has one of the lowest minimum wages compared to the cost of living. A poll conducted last year by Christopher Newport University found nearly 75 percent of Virginians favoured raising the minimum wage to about $10 per hour.
And not all businesses are opposed to the idea.
Large corporations like Bon Secours have committed to paying their Richmond employees a living wage.
So has Sara Milston whose the CEO of a small consulting firm in Richmond called The Spark Mill. Last year, she raised the pay for her employees and interns who weren’t already making $16 per hour.
“This isn’t in my mind about radical or super conservative, this is just about being a human and thinking about other people and their needs and their ability to pay for their basic needs,” Milston said.
Minimum wage affects consumers, employers and workers alike. For that reason, it's almost assured to be a central issue on the campaign trail, and something Democrats could hang their hat on that’s not tied to recent scandals.