Virginia Farmworkers Edge Closer To Making Minimum Wage, Which They Were Not Already Doing
This week, the Virginia House of Representatives voted 55-45, along party lines, to extend the state's minimum wage protections to farmworkers, as opposed to the 75 percent of the minimum wage their employers are currently permitted to pay them. Yes, you read that correctly. Farmworkers in Virginia do not make minimum wage and state Republicans thought to themselves, "Yes, let's continue doing this, this is a fantastic idea!"
Via NOVA Virginia:
Current law provides a partial minimum wage exemption for farm laborers and employees, subjecting them only to 75% of the state minimum wage or the federal minimum wage, whichever is higher. House Bill 1786, sponsored by Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, would fully repeal that exemption and subject those employers to the commonwealth's increasing minimum wage requirements.
Although Virginia's $7.75 minimum wage is only 50 cents higher than the federal mandate, it is set to steadily increase over the next few years, beginning in three months. On May 1, the minimum wage will increase to $9.50 per hour and it will go up to $11 per hour on Jan. 1 2022 and to $12 per hour on Jan. 1 2023.
The bill's language also includes a possibility for an increase to $13.50 by 2025 and $15 by 2026, but it would require additional action by the General Assembly to approve that hike. If the state does not approve the hike, then the $12 minimum wage would be tied to inflation.
Of course, as the bill's text shows, there will still be a number of employee types excluded from the minimum wage laws, including golf caddies, anyone in prison or "admitted to a state hospital or training center operated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services," anyone under the age of 16, anyone under 18 who is in school full-time, anyone employed by a summer camp, au pairs, etc. But that list will not include the essential workers providing our nation's food.
The Virginia bill is part of a larger push nationwide to ensure that farmworkers have the same labor protections as anyone else. It is also very likely to pass in the Democratic-controlled state Senate, which also just passed House Bill 2063 requiring employers to pay salaried employees overtime. The bill would then go to Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who we can fairly assume will sign it.
As we've explained before, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act exempted domestic workers and agricultural workers from most labor protections like minimum wage and overtime. At that time, most of that work was done by people of color, who were excluded from these protections in order to get legislators from the South to vote for them. Because they wanted to pay people of color less than minimum wage. Half of this racist nonsense was corrected back in 2013 when the Obama administration extended minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic employees and home care workers, but farmworkers were still largely left in the lurch.
Part of the reason agribusiness has been able to get away with this nonsense for so long is because they hold our food hostage. They can scare people by saying, "Oh, if we have to pay people a fair wage, you're all going to starve to death because we will have to charge you so much more for food!"
There's one big problem with that logic — no one can actually stay in business selling things for more than people are willing or able to pay for them. The fact is, keeping wages down across the board means that many things have to be less expensive than they actually should be, because otherwise no one will be able to buy those things.
If farmers can't afford to pay their workers enough to live on, then we have to consider that perhaps we are paying less for our food than it costs to ethically produce it. The fact that most Americans probably could not survive if we paid as much for our food as it costs to ethically produce it is a sign that our income and wealth distribution situation is pretty severely out of wack. Making sure that those at the bottom are making wages they can live off of is the first step to correcting that.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse