A Virginia that Works for Everyone

 

We still have a lot of work to do here in the Commonwealth to make sure the growth we’ve had, and that we’re going to continue to have, is inclusive growth- that we’re not leaving anyone behind as progress marches forward, that prosperity for working families rings in every zip code, every holler and hill, from the mountains to the sea.

According to the United Way, 28 percent of Virginians cannot afford basic needs even though they work for a living. Our minimum wage isn’t enough to afford a modest, two bedroom apartment in any part of the Commonwealth, whether you’re in Fairfax or Fancy Gap.

I’m sorry, but if you’re a Virginian that’s working full-time, you shouldn’t have to struggle to simply make ends meet.

But we are. We’re working harder than our parents and grandparents did. We’re working more and longer hours. We’re doing everything we’re supposed to, and more, but we can never seem to get ahead. And that’s because wage growth for working folks hasn’t budged since the early 1980s.

Case in point: in 1980, my father— working a middle class, 9-5 job with a high school diploma— made more on a single income, adjusted for inflation, than both my wife and I do today. And our story is far from unique. In the last forty years, while the average paychecks might be a little bigger, our purchasing power hasn’t budged an inch.

Somewhere along the way, the government stopped enabling Virginians to power their own success. This means that eventually people see that the system is rigged and they lose hope. Politicians today are too quick to tilt the playing field in favor of lobbyists, special interests, and the wealthy. It's the way Virginia politics has been engineered to run for the last eighty years. It’s how we can be ranked first in the country for businesses- but dead last, as the worst state in the country for working folks.

We shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. We can have a Commonwealth that’s an amazing incubator for businesses, AND one that stands up to do everything we can for working Virginians. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either lying, or simply unwilling and unable to do the hard work required to make that a possibility- because anything less than absolutely striving to attain the best in both categories is completely unacceptable.

 

Ensuring Family Leave and Guaranteed Medical Leave

In June 2018, Governor Northam signed an executive order offering paid time off for all state employees after the birth or adoption of a child, providing eight weeks of leave at full pay to mothers and fathers alike. Workers who become parents through adoption or through foster placement are also eligible. It's only a start, but it makes Virginia part of a small but growing vanguard of states trying to right a heinous wrong: the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t guarantee its workers paid family or medical leave.

And let's be frank: that policy disproportionately impacts women, who are often the primary caregiver for a newborn, aging parent, or ill family member. It also affects small businesses; those of you who own or work at small businesses know how many “hats” everyone has to wear to get things done. The biggest fear is often work stoppage, if an employee is gone for an extended period of time. When Jill is the only person who knows how to process invoices on payday, her construction company really needs her to be there.

So we have to lead a push to guarantee workers up to eight weeks of leave at two-thirds of their pay so they can care for a new child or an ill family member. This would also provide guaranteed medical leave so that workers can take the time they need to get healthy and back on the job. Best of all, this would give Virginians the flexibility to raise families and take care of themselves in times of hardship without worrying about losing their jobs. We also need to push to ensure that small businesses with workers on paid leave are specifically rewarded and supported through measures like temporary hiring subsidies or appropriate tax credits so these small businesses can keep growing their local economies.

If we want to say that the Commonwealth of Virginia stands up to fight for working Virginia families, then we need to include robust parental leave guarantees as a part of that commitment. And if you think this doesn’t apply to you, because your kids are grown or you don’t have any kids yet -- think again. Who do you think is creating the Virginians who will one day be your customers? Your nurses? Your mechanics? Your accountants?

Make Childcare Affordable Again

When I was attending the University of Virginia, childcare for my daughter cost me more than my entire UVA tuition- and it wasn’t even close. Now with three kids, it’d be about as cheap to pack them in an Uber and circle the block until my wife or I are done with work than it would be to send them all to daycare- but the costs they’d bear in turn are far worse.

In fact, the only way my wife and I can both keep working and afford high-quality daycare is because we’re nurses. It means we often work opposite shifts- so while we don’t get to see each other much, at least we can afford to pay the daycare bill. But that’s a blessing in this day and age; if you’re part of a working-class Virginia family, I can almost guarantee either you or someone you know has had to quit their job or cut their hours down immensely because of how expensive childcare is.

I get it. We want to be a part of the workforce, and so we want high-quality childcare- and childcare providers are professionals that deserve a wage commensurate with the support they provide for working Virginia families. This is a problem so profound that even President Trump promised to launch an “IvankaCare” initiative, rolling out proposals (championed by the national GOP) with a cumulative price tag somewhere in the vicinity of a trillion dollars. But he assured the American public their worries related to childcare would soon be over.

Yet nothing has happened- or has even been suggested or proposed to date. Which means we need to stand up here, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and get it done. Whether that’s through an expansion of parental tax credits or childcare savings accounts, a universal pre-K program, or exempting licensed, professional childcare providers from state income tax in “childcare deserts”, it’s clear that hundreds of thousands of working Virginia families would benefit immediately from bold action on this front.

Right to Work- Isn't

Right to Work, a phrase which has as much bearing on reality as "Netflix and chill", isn’t doing anything to protect the “right” of Virginians to work. I should know- I was a manager with a Fortune 25 company and was trained rigorously on what to do in case corporate’s worst nightmare came to pass: workers who wanted to stand up for themselves.

It matters, because today, we’re working harder than we’ve ever worked before! Literally, we’re working harder and longer today than our parents and grandparents did generations ago. Yet real wages for average Americans have stayed almost flat since 1980, even though our economy as a whole is producing more wealth than ever before. That’s why you’ve got companies who’ve used the trillions of dollars in “tax cuts” the Federal government passed- and used them to buy back shares, lay off workers, and move production overseas. They’ll declare bankruptcy, but make sure the executives get golden parachutes, taking home millions while taxpayer money subsidizes unemployment checks for the hourly workers laid off.

Sorry, but that’s just flippin’ unacceptable.

If you want to give working Virginians a voice, by God, give them some power to stand up for themselves! We need to eliminate “Right to Work” and give businesses and employees the chance to work together as partners to make things better for both of them. Beyond that, we need to use every tool we can to raise wages for Virginia’s working, like raising the minimum wage, passing prevailing wage laws, allowing for PLAs on public projects, fighting wage theft, and holding bad employers accountable.

We had a generation of Americans and Virginians that fought, bled, and died for workers’ rights- and they created the most prosperous middle class in history. Working Virginians don’t want special treatment; like a college basketball team on a Cinderella run, we just want a fair fight- a game where everyone plays by the same rules, enforced the same, weighted the same. Where working Virginians have a voice, and we can continue to make our economy the strongest and most resilient in the country by every conceivable measure.

Recognizing Small Businesses are the Backbone of Commonwealth- and ACTING like it

Even in the age of big businesses and international conglomerations, small businesses remain the workhorses and lifeblood of the Virginia – and indeed American – economy. The disruptions in our economy that have grown more and more frequent in the “digital” age mean that small businesses are more important than ever, because they are often more nimble and can change and update with the times. Even though they’ve been beaten down by politicians who too often overlook them in favor of huge giveaways to major corporation, they continue to persevere against all odds. So we need to help them up stand up!

I want to see small business owners being recruited and lauded by Commonwealth politicians. It ought to be the Barefoot Country Store in Scottsville being offered robust incentives for hiring workers; Sweet Nola’s in Winchester or Grace’s Pizza in Roanoke getting multiple visits from officials who’re begging them to open another location; robust support for Crewe Cuts barbershop in Crewe, or the Bayside Co-op in Virginia Beach; and the legislature to stop using tax dollars to put Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip out of business.

We can’t stand up for working Virginia families if we’re not standing up for small businesses.

Investing in Trades by Investing in People!

There are almost 170 apprenticeable occupations in Virginia- and over 730 active apprenticeship programs- paying workers to learn skilled trades and preparing them for secure, well-paying jobs in cutting-edge industries like clean energy.

We need to recognize the tremendous opportunity this presents for Virginians, and commit ourselves to strengthening trades, empowering tradespeople, and fueling economic growth by developing new programs that connect constituents to new employment opportunities and help business owners capitalize on existing opportunities like Worker Retraining Tax Credits.