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Georgia Geen

Minimum Wage Boost, Backed by Women’s Groups, Passes Committee

Organizations at rally included Progress Virginia and the Campaign for a Family-Friendly Economy. Below left: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spoke in favor of paid family and medical leave. Photo by Georgia Geen.

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — After dozens of women rallied at the Capitol on Monday, a legislative committee passed one of their key priorities — a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Virginia.

SB 1200 would take effect July 1, initially raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, then to $13 an hour in 2020 and $15 an hour in 2021. The bill, which passed the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on a 6-4 vote, will advance to the full Senate for a vote.

Currently, the minimum wage in Virginia is the federal minimum — $7.25 an hour. Raising the minimum wage was one of a number of legislative items — including access to reproductive health and paid family and medical leave — supported by the women’s advocacy groups at the rally.

Tara Gibson, Virginia director of the Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, said at the rally that raising the minimum wage would benefit women and their families.

“How many of you work multiple jobs just to provide for your families, or worry whether you can afford to put food on the table or make next month’s rent?” Gibson asked. “We’re all better off when everyone has the tools to build a good life.”

In most states, including Virginia, women make up more than half of minimum wage workers. Nationally, women consist of 47 percent of the workforce as of 2017. Across all races, women make up a larger portion of minimum wage workers than men.

To Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia — one of the groups present at the rally — supporting an increase in the minimum wage contributes to a “holistic” approach to gender equality.

“We know all of those things are important for women and families to thrive,” Scholl said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam spoke briefly at the rally in favor of paid medical and family leave. SB 1639 would allow state employees 12 weeks of family and medical leave per year. The benefit amounts to 70 percent of the employee’s wage, capped at $850 per week. Last year, a bill passed in Virginia granting state employees two months of parental leave.

“We want to make sure all Virginians have access to parental leave,” Northam said. “There is nothing more important than for a mother and father to be able to stay home with their new baby, or if there is an adoption or a foster child involved.”

Advocates also supported two bills that would prevent insurance companies from discriminating based on gender identity or transgender status. SB 1287 and HB 1864 are awaiting a vote at the legislative committee level.

Rebecca Barwick, a transgender woman who attended the rally, said the bills would help her get both prostate care and breast care. Currently, she said, her gender is listed as male on her insurance because if it were changed, she might be denied prostate care if she needed it in the future.

“However, having this marker set to male puts me at risk of being denied breast health if I ever need that,” Barwick said.

Barwick also discussed the difficulties she experienced when undergoing hormone treatments in 2015. There weren’t any nearby health centers offering hormone therapy that accepted her insurance, requiring her to make a three-hour trip to Washington, D.C. every three months. Then, the Planned Parenthood location in her city began offering hormone treatments.

“This changed my travel for health care from three hours to 10 minutes,” Barwick said.

Rally Urges Legislators to Reinstate Parole in Virginia

 The Virginia Prison Justice Network advocated on Saturday in favor of legislation that would instate criminal justice reform.

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Dozens turned out for a rally hosted Saturday at the Capitol in support of bills introduced to the General Assembly that would reinstate parole for some incarcerated Virginians.

Virginia ended discretionary parole in 1995, but those sentenced before the law went into effect are still eligible. HJ 644, introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, would direct a study into the reinstatement of discretionary parole, which releases an offender before he/she completes his/her sentence.

The study is a start, said Lillie Branch-Kennedy, founder of Resource, Information, Help for the Disadvantaged and Disenfranchised, a statewide support group for prisoners and their families. But she says she doesn’t want to see it stop there.

“We don’t want it to go to a study and just die away, go away, fade away,” Branch-Kennedy said.

A portion of the rally addressed the “Fishback” cases, incarcerated Virginians who were sentenced after the abolishment of parole but before a Supreme Court ruling that jurors had to be made aware that their sentences would be carried out fully.

“The jurors were not told that parole was abolished [prior to the ruling], thereby giving them sentences thinking they would be eligible for parole,” Branch-Kennedy said.

SB 1437, introduced by Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, would make those prisoners eligible for parole. Branch-Kennedy said this would apply to about 300 incarcerated people in Virginia.

Other bills supported by the Virginia Prison Justice Network — which organized the rally — address data collection on solitary confinement and the reinstatement of felon voting rights. On Wednesday, a Senate committee killed two measures to amend the Virginia Constitution to give people convicted of a felony the right to vote, but a similar bill remains. SJ 283 would reinstate voting rights for felons that made restitution and completed their sentences.

“The biggest part [of getting legislation passed] is going to be trying to get people to show up for the committee meetings,” said Joseph Rogers, an organizer for the Virginia Prison Justice Network.

Rogers noted the rally’s increased attendance from a similar event last year, despite Saturday’s forecast of a late-afternoon winter storm.

“I am hoping that we do get the opportunity to have people testifying at the General Assembly committee meetings,” Rogers said. “Just as we saw how powerful these statements from prisoners impacted the crowd here, we can only imagine how much that can actually impact the legislators.”

Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, is sponsoring HB 1745, which would make people in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles eligible for parole after having served 25 years of their sentences.

James Braxton, who spoke at the rally, is a director for juvenile justice reform group RISE for Youth.

“But today, I’m speaking with you as someone who was formerly incarcerated,” Braxton said.

Braxton, whose charges included attempted robbery, was one of several formerly incarcerated people to speak at the rally, and representatives read statements from prisoners serving sentences in facilities throughout the state.

Braxton recalled his experience in prison. He said that upon entering, he was given a bucket with two small bars of soap, a toothbrush and a little bit of toothpaste meant to last months. He said when he left prison, he was given few resources — similar to his situation prior to being incarcerated, when he “barely” graduated high school and found himself without a support system.

“I had to start from scratch [upon release], sleeping on my grandmother’s floor,” Braxton said. “It wasn’t until an opportunity was offered to me that changed my life. But it had nothing to do with the system, and the system had the opportunity to do that. That has to change.”

ERA Clears Senate Committee, Faces Uncertainty in House

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment gather to greet legislators Wednesday afternoon

By Georgia Geen and Alexandra Zernik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — An 8-6 vote by a Senate committee Wednesday brought the federal Equal Rights Amendment one step closer to passing the General Assembly — which could make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted to approve a resolution that Virginia ratify the ERA, which was proposed by Congress in 1972 and would prevent federal and state governments from passing laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

The six Democrats on the committee were joined by two Republicans — Sens. William DeSteph of Virginia Beach and Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier — in voting for the resolution. The other six Republicans on the panel voted against it.

The resolution — SJ 284 — was sponsored by a bipartisan group of 15 senators and three House members.

The committee’s decision will send the resolution to the Senate floor for a vote. While supporters are optimistic about bipartisan support in the Senate — which has passed similar proposals five times since 2011 — the same isn’t true in the House.

A co-sponsor of the resolution, Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, said it will face Republican opposition. If it clears the full Senate, SJ 284 would go to the House Privileges and Elections Committee, where such resolutions have traditionally died.

Every Democrat on the House panel has signaled support for ratifying the ERA, but no Republican has followed suit. The lack of GOP support in the House committee represents the biggest hurdle for the resolution, said Candace Graham, co-founder of Women Matter, a group dedicated to ratifying the ERA.

“We feel very confident that if we can get those couple of votes on the [House] committee that we need for it to go to the floor, then it will pass on the floor,” Graham said.

When first introduced in 1923, the ERA did not pass in Congress. Renewed interest in 1972 pushed the amendment through Congress, and it was ratified by 35 states within the 10-year period before the 1982 deadline.

An amendment needs approval from three-fourths of the states — or 38 — for ratification.

A conservative movement led by political activist Phyllis Schlafly — who said the amendment would make all laws “sex-neutral” and subject women to the draft — played a role in leaving the ERA three states short of the 38 it needed for federal ratification at the time.

In recent years, there has been a revived push toward ratification. In 2017, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA, followed by Illinois the next year.

Because the deadline has expired, some say the ERA can’t be ratified. But other experts disagree. The 27th Amendment, which regulates congressional salaries, was ratified more than 200 years after its 1789 introduction, though it was never given a time limit, unlike the ERA.

“There are very smart and reasonable people on both sides who disagree over whether Congress has the constitutional authority in the first place to put a time limit on the ratification of a constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, who also is a chief co-sponsor of the resolution.

Further complicating the matter is that five states have since rescinded their ERA ratifications. But the U.S. Constitution does not specifically allow states to do that, and previous rescissions have been deemed invalid.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, also co-sponsored SJ 284. He said the recent ratification by Nevada and Illinois has improved the outlook in Virginia and contributed to a new wave within the movement.

“Nevada and Illinois showed us that there are other legislatures in this country that are moving the ball forward,” Surovell said. “I think the urgency and the historical importance of being the state that puts us across the top really sort of changes the political and emotional dynamic of the issue.”

Unlike other recent efforts in Virginia, this year’s resolution is supported by several Republicans — including Sens. Sturtevant, DeSteph and Siobhan Dunnavant of Henrico.

“We haven’t [previously] had a Republican who’s been willing to step up and actually carry this bill,” Surovell said.

Advocates also see renewed momentum in the form of 20,000 signatures on a petition and a poll showing that more than 80 percent of Virginians favor ratification.

“So we’re hopeful that all those things combined are going to make this year a different year,” Surovell said.

Opponents of the ERA fear it could result in integrated prisons and sports teams and fewer specific protections for women and could threaten female-only universities and organizations.

Colleen Holcomb, a lawyer and lobbyist representing the Family Foundation — which opposes the ERA — referred to it as a “fundraiser cause.”

“Regardless of what your position with regard to gender identity, we have biological men competing with women, and that's impending their ability to get academic scholarships and to be able to succeed in their areas of choice,” Holcomb said.

But advocates for the amendment view specific constitutional protections based on sex as necessary for gender equality.

“When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. They say, ‘You want special privileges.’ We don’t want special privileges. We just want what everyone else enjoys,” said Eileen Davis, co-founder of Women Matter. “Race, religion, national origin all have strict constitutional scrutiny — sex does not.”

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