HARRISONBURG — For the second time in a row, Virginia was ranked the worst state to work in because of the Commonwealth’s low score on wage, worker protections and right-to-organize policies, according to a report by Oxfam America, a union of 20 charitable organizations focused on reducing poverty.
Earlier this year, Virginia was named the top state to do business for the first time since 2011 by CNBC, a news business outlet.
Virginia’s low minimum wage of $7.25, along with scarce protections for incidents such as sexual harassment, as well as its status as a right-to-work state produced the bad score for the Oxfam report.
A living wage in Harrisonburg is $16.04 for two working parents supporting two children, according to the Living Wage Calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Right-to-work is a policy in Virginia that exempts workers from being forced to pay union dues. Typically, in a unionized business, all employees must pay union dues to pay for things such as legal counsel and collective bargaining with bosses for increased wages and benefits.
Oxfam America considers the policy to suppress labor unions.
“This is not business versus workers,” Brent Finnegan, Democratic nominee for the 26th District of the House of Delegates, said of the Oxfam report. “This is 'We can create an economy where businesses do well and workers do well.' ”
Washington state ranked third on Oxfam’s 2019 report and ranked fifth on CNBC’s top state for business in 2019.
The 2019 Oxfam report is the second annual report released by the group.
Finnegan supports government action to raise the minimum wage in the Commonwealth.
“Virginia is one of the more expensive states to live in and that the wage is stuck at $7.25 is ridiculous,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan's opponent in the November election, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Jay Langston, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, expressed concern with raising the minimum wage.
“If it were as simple as increasing the minimum wage and that would do away with poverty, then why does California and New York have such higher rates of poverty than Virginia does?” Langston said. “There is not a direct correlation between just raising a minimum wage and income prosperity.”
Wilt added that companies may have to fire workers if wages increase above what the company can pay.
“If there are people depending upon minimum wage jobs for career and sustenance, that’s part of the problem,” Langston said. “There’s a bigger systemic issue.”
Finnegan, Langston and Wilt agreed that Virginia’s bottom position in reports such as the Oxfam 2019 Best State to Work could rise without endangering the Commonwealth’s top spot for business — though they had differing ideas on how.
Finnegan said that increasing the minimum wage would increase the purchasing power of workers, growing businesses. He also argued that there would be provisions in wage-raising legislation to support smaller businesses as they slowly increase wages without forcing mass layoffs or companies to go under.
“The way to help our community and our local economy thrive is to make sure everyone is being paid a living wage, can afford their rent and afford to support local business within the community,” Finnegan said.
Wilt and Langston agreed about the role education plays in increasing Virginians' wages.
“There's no better way than to lift someone up by providing them the skills and capability to get a better job,” Langston said.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called the ranking “unacceptable” and talked about legislation he supports, such federally raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, strengthening protections for pregnant workers and improving sick leave.
Fellow U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., discussed other policies such as tax incentives for companies that invest in workers and a “portable benefits system” where a portion of one’s income goes to the system so when the worker changes jobs, the benefits follow.
The Daily News-Record contacted U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, but did not receive an answer by press time.