A state delegate’s proposed bill to allow localities to set their own minimum-wage levels, provided they do not dip below the federal government’s level, has drawn a tentative response from one local official and outright opposition from two chambers of commerce.
Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria-Arlington) said his bill, which he has introduced at least three times before, does not set specific wage levels, but tries to address the reality that some parts of the commonwealth – Northern Virginia, as a prime example – are more pricey to live in than others.
“It is simply more expensive to own a home, to rent a home, to buy groceries – all of it, transportation – in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax than it is in Galax, Bristol, Lynchburg, other areas of the state,” he told the Sun Gazette. “It strikes me that one-size-fits-all is not the way to go.”
Paying low-level employees more would allow them to live in (or at least nearer to) the communities in which they work, spend more time with their families and reduce their commutes, thus freeing up clogged roads, Levine said.
Levine stressed his bill would be voluntary and not require localities to raise their minimum-wage levels. While some employers will object to any minimum-wage hikes, most in Northern Virginia understand the cost of living there is higher and pay more than the minimum already, he said.
But not everyone agrees with the thrust of Levine’s bill. Kate Bates, president and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, said chamber leaders oppose the legislation.
“The Arlington Chamber does not support allowing individual local governments to set their own minimum wage,” Bates said. “We operate in a regional economy, where workers and consumers regularly cross county and city lines. The Chamber has long held this view because consistency is essential to ensure that Arlington’s businesses remain competitive in the regional marketplace.”
The Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce also does not support a regional alternative minimum wage, said Clayton Medford, its vice president of government affairs.
“We would rather see statewide action that considers what the impact of a wage hike will be in different parts of the commonwealth,” Medford said. “The market in Northern Virginia has already determined an average wage well above the current minimum wage. That’s not the case in other parts of Virginia.”
Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce leaders are seeking restoration of Northern Virginia Transportation Authority funding diverted to the Metrorail system in 2018, plus investments in education that would give people more opportunities to learn skills needed for current and future jobs, he said.
“Generally speaking, we want to ensure that in pursuing their legislative priorities, the General Assembly takes into account the impacts on the vibrant Northern Virginia economy and does not unintentionally put at risk our status as the best state in which to do business,” Medford said.
Arlington County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said while she was inclined to support Levine’s bill as a means of lifting people out of poverty, she wanted to inspect wage laws being proposed by other lawmakers, and see some analysis of the likely effects of local minimum wages versus regional ones.
“I think it is likely that the best way to achieve higher wages for workers is by increasing the minimum wage in the entire commonwealth of Virginia and then permitting the implementation of a regional minimum wage, rather than just a jurisdictional one,” Garvey said. “Localities could not gain a competitive advantage over a neighbor by adjusting [or] not adjusting their wage.”
Democrats, who now control both houses of the General Assembly, have proposed a flurry of minimum-wage bills this year. Some would eliminate exclusions from minimum-wage laws, while others pertain to tipped employees, who are paid under different standards. Most of the proposed bills, however, would set specific statewide levels for the minimum wage, with several proposing successive increases in coming years.
Legislators have not delved into Levine’s bill yet, as the new session began just last week, but could refer the legislation to committee as early as this week. The bill is one of 46, plus a constitutional amendment, that Levine has proposed in this session.
“There’s a whole bunch of progressive priorities that I’ve been putting in that did not succeed under Republican leadership and I think can do very well under Democratic leadership,” Levine said. “My plate’s pretty full this year.”
Scott McCaffrey contributed to this report.