RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia workers who are paid the minimum wage may see their pay increase if the General Assembly takes action on one of Gov. Ralph Northam’s agenda items for this session, which started Wednesday.

Virginia is one of 22 states that still use the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. Most states have increased the rate, including West Virginia, which as a minimum wage of $8.75 an hour.

Washington D.C.’s minimum will increase to $15 an hour in July 1, the highest in the country.

Other high minimums include Washington State $13.50; California $13; Massachusetts $12.75;

Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut (effective Sept. 1) and Maine $12.

Counties and cities can have different minimums than the state. For example, the highest in the country in 2019 was Emeryville, Calif. at $16.30 an hour.

A proposal in the 2019 session of the General Assembly saw a bill to increase the minimum wage to $10 in 2019 and then two years later to $15 was defeated in the Senate down party line votes.

At that time, Republicans had a slim majority, 21-19. This year, the numbers are reversed and Democrats have a 21-19 edge and control the House as well after the November 2019 election.

Northam, a Democrat, has not proposed a specific minimum, only saying it needs to be more than $7.25.

“Virginians have waited too long,” he said in a statement from his office Tuesday. “Legislative process will determine specifics and timeframe for implementation.”

Del. James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell County, is reluctant to raise the minimum wage but continues to consider it.

“I am still evaluating the issue of raising the minimum wage,” he said. “I anticipate that it will be raised, but more than likely I will not vote in support of raising it.”

Morefield said he is aware it is difficult to survive if that is the only source of income.

“There is no question that it is impossible for someone to make ends meet while earning such low pay, but minimum wage was not intended for someone to earn an entire lifetime,” he said. “It was created as a minimum standard where people can earn their way up to one day earn a higher wage.”

He said raising the minimum wage has proven to be an “economic failure” in other states because it results in higher costs for products.

“The individuals most affected are the working poor and middle class,” he said. “As minimum wage is increased, companies have no choice but to pass the cost to consumers by increasing the price of goods and services to pay for it. The cost of doing business and cost of living is already extremely expensive. Can our population honestly afford to pay more for basic necessities like food? We simply cannot.”

Morefield said that If there were a way to prevent companies from raising the cost of goods and services then “theoretically raising the minimum wage would be a good thing, but that would be socialism.”

“Socialism has failed miserably for decades in countries all around the world,” he said. “There are many situations where individuals may not have the opportunity to gain new skills or get an education to have a higher paying job and that is why I believe it is my role to help provide assistance in the form of better access to healthcare for those less fortunate and more opportunities to obtain a quality education.”

The goal is to help provide people with an opportunity to find a better job with higher wages.

“Raising the minimum wage will only raise the price of goods and services in addition to forcing companies to leave Virginia,” he said, “especially in the more distressed areas of the commonwealth.”

Lori Stacy, executive director of the Tazewell Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes to learn more when she goes to Richmond on Jan. 23, but it is a slippery slope for businesses.

“We will be attending the Legislative Day (for chambers in the state) and we are sure it will be discussed,” she said. “Small businesses struggle but families need more money.”

That balancing act is a tough one, she said, trying to provide a higher minimum but not so high it is detrimental to business.

“Small businesses will suffer if it (minimum wage increase) is too high,” she said, adding about 40 percent of Americans work for small businesses at one time during their careers and they make a “great place and training ground for employees to get their feet wet.”

Several bills to raise the minimum have been introduced in the General Assembly prior to last year’s attempt, pointing out the $7.25 has been in place since 2009.

Bills are expected to be introduced this year to gradually bring it up to $15, possibly to $9 or $10 initially, according to various reports.

A study by CNBC and EPI (Economic Policy Institute) that compared minimum wage and cost of living expenses in cities across the country had Virginia Beach, Va. as number two on the list of “the 10 worst cities for minimum-wage workers.”

At $7.25 an hour, the study said, a person would have to work almost 118 hours a week to make enough money to make ends meet.

Charlotte, N.C. was first on the list. North Carolina also still uses the federal minimum.

The federal minimum wage for workers who receive tips is $2.13 an hour, as long as enough tips are received to make up the difference.

—  Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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