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OpEd: The General Assembly must raise the minimum wage in Virginia

Posted by: brad – Jan 09, 2017

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One in every four of us human beings who reside in Richmond live in poverty. That is to say, one in every four Richmonders does not make enough money to cover basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter and hygienic upkeep). We are a city going through something of a cultural renaissance, but this rebirth does not yet include all of our working class.

While less workers actually make the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, far more of us don't make or just barely make a living wage. A living wage is the amount a household must make in order to cover the costs of "food, child care, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities (e.g. clothing personal care items, etc.)," according to research from MIT.

In Richmond, a living wage is $11.93 an hour for a single person with no dependents, $13.15 in a household with two working adults and one child, and much higher for single parents with just one child: $23.96. Six in ten households in Richmond are single parent.

Even in Richmond, still a relatively cheap city, it's easy to see the cost of living greatly exceeds minimum wage and for many households a minimum wage or near-minimum wage is assuredly a poverty wage. It is unconscionable that many thousands of our fellow Richmonders work full-time and still struggle to provide the basic necessities for their families.

Richmond, with a little help from our state legislature, could become a leader in the New South, and in the country, in regards to how we treat our working class citizens. the state legislature should pass HB1444 and SB978 and raise our minimum wage to $15 an hour, passing it now and giving employers until 2021 to comply.

We should do this quickly before Richmond becomes more expensive; only then will the working class of Richmond have greater economic means to shape this city's growth.

This is not a radical policy idea. Hillary Clinton, who a majority of Americans, Virginians and Richmonders just cast their vote for, ran on a platform which called for federal minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour.

The city of Seattle and the states of California and New York have all implemented this plan, and as a result, a good amount of research has been done to gauge its impact. Research consistently shows that raising the minimum wage has a minimal impact on jobs, and that the amount of people who see increases in their incomes far outstrips jobs lost. Effects on employers is demonstrated to be minimal; raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is shown to decrease turnover, increase worker productivity and stimulate the buying power of workers.

Between these effects and a slight increase in prices, the initial costs of raising workers' wages is well borne out by secondary effects.

In addition to being morally imperative, raising the minimum wage is sound economic policy.

I work in a patient transportation department of a hospital where non-manager wages range from ten to twelve an hour. Many of the people in my department are parents, single or otherwise, meaning that without overtime pay, they aren't making a living wage. Many of them work overtime and on holidays to make up the gap.

Backseat economists will often argue that if a worker doesn't want to make a wage like ours, they should educate themselves and get higher paying work, and that is what many of us are doing. But education from any accredited institution is not cheap, and with a wage which just barely covers the cost of living, saving money to take classes and buy books is much easier said than done; you pretty much have to work overtime.

Though, if you work more than forty hours a week, of course, it's difficult to find time to study, especially if you already have a family.

On top of that, the hospital would not function properly without us, much like our peers in the environmental services and dietary services staff--whose wages are similar to ours. We are essential hospital personnel and it's not in anyone's interest for us to be fatigued.

Yet, that is what our economic situation more or less demands of us and thousands of other working people in this city.

It won’t be easy or likely to be accomplished in this session of the general assembly, but I believe this is a tangible goal over the next four years. The protests and planned resistance to Trump's election show that there's political energy and anger in this town as of yet untapped. A visit to the archives of the Virginia Defender or to the new Zine Library at Gallery 5 shows that activism and political rage are nothing new in Richmond.

Our legislators, to their credit, have been trying to raise the minimum wage for several sessions now, and there’s been demonstrations in support in Richmond.

We will have to organize and be consistent in applying pressure to our legislators if we ever want to pass laws like this and give our working class a long overdue raise.

Business owners and working single mothers alike would benefit. This is the pro-worker, anti-poverty solution that the Old Dominion needs.

Words by Matthew Conover, top image via Fightfor15 Twitter

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