Ada Romano

Workers urge Northam to sign minimum wage bill

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Workers and advocates are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 at the start of next year. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 22, and lawmakers will reevaluate recently passed legislation as the state’s economy takes a blow and unemployment climbs during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Northam and state leaders anticipate the state’s economy will suffer a major hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Northam didn’t respond directly whether he is considering delaying the increase in minimum wage when asked at a recent press conference. 

“There are a number of pieces of legislation that we are looking at regarding our business environment, and I haven’t made any definite decisions, but we are talking to the patrons of those pieces of legislation,” Northam said. The governor said he will “make a decision in the best interest of Virginia and the best interest of our economy.”

Workers on the front lines of essential businesses continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 outbreak, including many workers who earn minimum wage–currently $7.25 in Virginia. 

Employees at a Virginia Kroger grocery store and Amazon distribution center recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many essential workers have asked for an increase in pay to reflect the increased need for their services and the elevated risks they take while working. 

Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, an advocacy organization, said that raising the minimum wage is necessary to allow these workers to raise their families with dignity. 

“That’s especially true now when grocery store workers, delivery drivers, home health aids and so many more are going to work for low wages and putting themselves at risk of getting sick so that we can stay home and healthy,” Scholl said in a press release. 

The group is asking Northam to sign House Bill 395 into law without amendments or delays that would water down the bill. HB 395 would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. The minimum wage could go up to $15 by 2026, if approved by the General Assembly. 

Some essential workers also argue that they are not being provided adequate protective gear and supplies to keep them safe from the coronavirus, another reason they are pushing for guaranteed wage increase.

Lisa Harris works at Kroger in Mechanicsville and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She has been with Kroger for 13 years and said in a press conference organized by Progress Virginia that she would benefit directly from HB 395. She is urging Northam to sign the bill with no weakening amendments. 

“I find it fascinating how fast grocery store workers like me have gone from being considered unskilled labor to being recognized as essential personnel,” Harris said. 

She compared workers dealing directly with an increasingly infected public to being on the front lines like first responders and said “it would be nice to be paid accordingly.” 

Harris said Kroger is not observing the proper social distancing recommendation of 6 feet or providing workers with personal protective equipment. She said the staff is required to wipe down the self checkout scanners and screens every half hour but argues that this is impossible with the influx of customers visiting the store. Harris said the staff is given Windex to clean equipment and not a proper disinfectant. The company has given full-time workers a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 pay boost, but that’s not enough money, Harris said. 

“It means barely being able to support myself, it means making tough decisions about whether to pay a bill or skip a meal, it means calling on my family members to help me as I’m attempting to be a fully enfranchised 31-year old,” Harris said. 

Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, said the grocery chain provided all hourly workers with a $2 pay increase for hours worked March 29 through April 18. McGee also stated that all Kroger stores in the Richmond area have been provided with Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants to wipe down counters and cash registers. She said employees are required to wipe down surfaces frequently and extra hand sanitizer bottles have been provided at each checkout station.

“As far as PPE, we are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves, and we’re working hard to secure these resources for our associates,” McGee stated in an email. “Supply has started to arrive for our associates, and we anticipate all locations having personal protective equipment within the next several weeks.”

Kroger said on its website that they want healthcare workers to get a hold of protective gear before they can properly distribute it to their workers. For now employees have limited access to such PPE and are encouraged to use their own.

Beginning April 7, Kroger will also start to limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code's calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores, the company announced this week.

Michael Cassidy, executive director of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said that the coronavirus is a reminder many essential workers are also minimum wage workers. 

“These individuals are providing a vital service to us right now and they deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said if the minimum wage increase were to go into effect in January, it would help 46,000 healthcare workers, 100,00 retail workers and over 100,000 restaurant and service industry workers. He said this would allow people to buy more and contribute to businesses and the economy as a whole. 

“That’s important because consumer spending is the foundation of our economy, it’s about 72% of Virginia’s gross domestic product,” Cassidy said. 

Del. Danica Roem said in a tweet that she is extremely disappointed to see groups advocating for bills like HB 395 to be watered down or delayed. 

“We’re $1.50/hr behind West Virginia right now,” Roem tweeted. “You don’t see an uprising of West Virginian business leaders demanding the government lower their minimum wage to match ours.” 

Cassidy said history shows that increasing the minimum wage during a recession has been successful in bringing the economy back.
HB 395 is currently pending signature by Northam with a deadline of April 11.

Sanders urges voters to participate in ‘most consequential and important election’

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Thousands of supporters greeted the Democratic presidential candidate and front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders in Richmond Thursday, just days ahead of Super Tuesday. 

Hopefuls were turned away despite the venue change from a 1,500-occupancy music hall to the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center which holds 6,000 people. The bleachers roared as supporters held up signs, chanted and stomped with excitement. 

Hometown musicians Lucy Dacus and No BS! Brass warmed up the crowd before activists, community members and one of the state’s first-elected Latina legislators stumped for Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont. 

The crowd cheered as Charlottesville City Councilman Michael Payne called for a political revolution.

“The reason I am here this afternoon is the same reason that each and every one of you are here,” Payne said. “Because you see in yourselves, in your families and in your communities that every single day that goes by where we do not challenge and change the status quo means homelessness, it means rationing insulin and medicine, it means choosing between rent and healthcare.”

Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, took to the stage, asking: “Are you guys feeling the Bern?” 

“He has a consistent message of progress,” Guzmán said, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2017 as part of the state’s blue wave. “We had a base here in Virginia in 2016 that believed in his message and voted for him.”

Sanders’ platform includes providing a path to citizenship for immigrants without documentation, medical care for all and free public college for all. These ideas have been considered radical by some, but Sanders argues that these are basic human rights.

“We know that our immigration needs fundamental reform,” Sanders said. “We’re going to sign an executive order that ends all of Trump’s racist immigration policies. As the son of an immigrant, I take this issue personally.” 

Since his 2016 campaign, Sanders has called for free college education for all and to eliminate student debt in the U.S.

“The world has changed. The economy, technology have changed,” Sanders said. “Public education from K-12 is no longer good enough. We need to make our public colleges and universities tuition free.” 

Sanders, who supports universal healthcare, has long criticized the U.S. healthcare system. He told the crowd about traveling to Canada with a group of diabetics. According to Sanders, the cost on insulin went down to one-tenth of the U.S. market price.

“Together we are going to end the international embarrassment of the U.S. being the only major country on Earth not to guarantee healthcare to all people everywhere,” Sanders said. 

The crowd cheered as Sanders promised to legalize marijuana by executive order. Sanders said he would expunge the records of those previously convicted of marijuana possession.

Protesters like George Paton stood outside and voiced opposition to Sanders’ political ideology.

“I am a capitalist; I think Bernie is a socialist and a communist,” Paton said. “If there is a communist in Richmond, I want to be there on the sidelines.” 

Sanders ranks No. 1 in an average of national polls for the Democratic nomination; a frontrunner with twice the lead over Joe Biden in second place. After a slim victory in the recent New Hampshire primary, Sanders easily clinched a win in Nevada.

The Virginia Democratic primary will take place on Tuesday, March 3. In the 2016 primary, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received 64% of the Democratic votes to Sanders’ 35%. Sanders garnered the most votes in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Richmond ranked No. 4, with just over 14,000 votes cast for Sanders. 

Sanders encouraged the crowd to go out and vote. 

“This primary takes place in the midst of the most consequential and important election in the modern history of America,” Sanders said. “I am asking of all of you, please come out to vote.”

Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

A coalition of groups lobbying for immigrant rights at the Virginia State Capitol on Jan. 16, in support of bills to grant driver licenses and in-state tuition to people without documentation. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition. 

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee. 

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said. 

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring. 

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia. 

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said. 

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester. 

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future. 

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”

Bill advances to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to possess a driver’s license advanced in the Senate Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 34, introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, would allow immigrants to obtain a driver’s license regardless of legal status. The applicant must prove they don’t have a social security or individual taxpayer identification number and submit a certified statement that their information is true. The bill had several amendments this legislative session.

House Bill 1211 introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, is an identical bill that also extends these rights to undocumented immigrants. Tran introduced a similar bill that died in subcommittee last year. If approved, the bills will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. 

Nayeli Montes said she came to the United States illegally from Mexico in 2005 for a chance at a better life. She worked 12 hour shifts at a restaurant back home earning the equivalent of $6.50 a day. Today, Montes is involved with the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which lobbies lawmakers for immigrant rights.

Driver’s licenses can be required to obtain certain resources such as credit cards and car insurance. Currently, 13 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico provide driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. VACIR believes providing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants will make roads safer because drivers will be educated, trained and tested. The three states that adopted these measures the earliest experienced a 30% decrease in traffic fatalities, compared to a nationwide 20 percent drop, according to The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, which studies issues affecting low-income residents.

The coalition said the bill will increase state revenue through vehicle registration, license plate fees and title fees. According to The Commonwealth Institute, allowing undocumented immigrants to drive would produce between $11 million and $18 million in revenue from car registration fees, title fees and license plate fees. The institute estimated that between 124,500 and 160,800 drivers would seek Virginia licenses within the first two years if immigration status was not a factor.

Humberto Rodriguez, the owner of a painting company and an immigrant from Mexico, said he came to the U.S. for better opportunities for him and his family. He said his son is the only person in his household who can legally drive and he would like for this privilege to be extended to all immigrants. His son is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. DACA allows undocumented children who entered the U.S. before they turned 16 to work, attend college or university and obtain a driver’s license. 

“I just want to make it clear that we came here to make a living for ourselves,” Rodriguez said. “Undocumented immigrants will go out and work no matter the weather conditions and we do our work with dignity.” 

The House bill has received more support this year than last year, but one representative worries it may misrepresent an immigrant’s legal status. 

Del. Terry L. Austin, R-Botetourt, said he voted against the House bill because the driver’s license that would be issued to an undocumented immigrant is identical to a citizen’s driver’s license and could misrepresent the legal status of an immigrant. 

“I think we need to be very careful with this,” Austin said. “This could misrepresent an individual’s identity and could compromise the safety in the United States.” 

Undocumented immigrants also have concerns. They worry the DMV could potentially release their information to the federal government and that they could get arrested or deported. However, both bills state that an individual’s name won’t be released unless ordered by a court. Additionally no photograph would be released to law enforcement or federal authorities unless a name or sufficient evidence was presented; the commissioner could still decline to release the photograph. 

Tran also sponsored HB 1700 which limits the release of information such as proof documents, photographs of an individual and signatures from the DMV to government agencies. Additionally, the bill would prohibit a federal immigration law enforcement agency from accessing information stored by the DMV without a court order or warrant. A subcommittee shelved that bill Tuesday. 

The fate of HB 1211 hasn’t been determined. The bill has been shuffled among House panels, with two recommendations, and is currently in an Appropriations subcommittee that meets next week.

Black Friday 19

Tethering bill adds new protections for animals kept outside

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Animal rights advocates want lawmakers to advance legislation that expands on a tethering bill passed last year by the General Assembly. The new legislation would increase the minimum length of a tether and adds conditions that include temperature, severe weather and require the animal to be brought inside when the owner isn’t home.

Senate Bill 272, introduced by Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, would increase the required length of the tether from 10 feet or three times the length of the animal to 15 feet or four times the length of the animal. Under the bill, pets can’t be tied during a heat advisory or if a severe weather warning has been issued, including hurricane, tropical storm or tornado warnings. The bill outlaws tethering in temperatures 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower or 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and when an owner is not home. Last session, a bill expanded the law from a 3-foot tether to 10 feet. That bill, introduced by Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, originally carried the same language as Bell’s current bill, but it was amended by a Senate committee.

Robert Leinberger, animal control supervisor for Richmond Animal Care and Control, said that some parts of the bill may be difficult to enforce. Still, if the legislation gets passed, Leinberger said, it will make a difference because people will be forced to be more aware of the law. He said more people will call to report instances of animals being improperly tethered.

“For example if it’s inclement weather, when it’s really super cold or really super hot, then we do occasionally see more calls for service because of the animals left out,” Leinberger said.

Kate Riviello, a New York-based animal rights activist who also works in Virginia, supports that the bill outlaws outdoor tethering when the temperature is below 32 degrees. Virginia law currently requires that an animal must have access to water, but the water doesn’t make a difference if it freezes, she said.

Riviello also supports “Tommie’s Law,” legislation passed last year that made animal cruelty a felony in Virginia. The law is named after a pit bull that died after he was set on fire. Riviello said she is happy to see the changes Virginia is making to protect the rights of animals but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to continue in the right direction.

“With ‘Tommie’s law,’ I think it was really tremendous that they took that step,” Riviello said. The key also is to enforce animal rights’ laws, Riviello said, which isn’t always the case.

Leinberger said implementing animal rights’ legislation is important because it enables people to better care for their pets. Tethering is just one issue that needs to be addressed, he said.

The bill is awaiting action by the Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.

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