Richmond, Virginia — Citing economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam proposed an amendment to a bill increasing the state's minimum wage that would delay its implementation several months, his office announced Sunday.
The governor's office also said he had signed bills that make sweeping changes to voting in Virginia by repealing the state's voter ID law, making Election Day a state holiday and expanding access to early voting.
The governor wants the wage increase to kick in May 1, 2021, instead of in January 2021. Northam, a Democrat, proposed the same May effective date for a number of other labor-related measures, including a bill that would allow limited public sector collective bargaining.
"This will ensure workers get the support they need while allowing greater economic certainty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic," his office said in a news release.
Advocates for workers had urged the governor to sign the bills without a delay. Business groups had lobbied Northam to delay or veto the measures, saying they would strain employers and add costs for taxpayers.
The Democrat-controlled General Assembly is scheduled to take up the governor's vetoes and amendments during a one-day session later this month.
Northam's chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said in a conference call with reporters that the governor's proposed changes would not affect the series of subsequent minimum increases contained in the bill.
"Workers deserve a raise," Mercer said.
The measure as passed would have increased the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $9.50 in January. The wage would then gradually increase to $12 by 2023, with scheduled increases beyond that requiring additional approval from the General Assembly.
A coalition of labor unions that pushed for the collective bargaining legislation — which would extend the right only to local government workers if their locality opts in — expressed disappointment in the proposed delay.
"Choosing May of 2021 as an effective date also leaves open the possibility that the governor will go back to the General Assembly next session and ask for yet another delay. It is easier to postpone a freedom than it is to take one away," said the coalition that includes the Virginia AFL-CIO and Virginia Education Association.
Northam's office also announced that he signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping measure that among other things lays out a transition to 100% renewable energy in the coming decades. The bill's passage was a huge win for environmental advocates, though Republicans and other ratepayer advocates have warned it will come at a steep cost.
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement that Northam's actions on the minimum wage and Clean Economy Act failed to provide long-term certainty for Virginia's businesses and their employees.
"The hundreds of thousands of Virginians who have filed for unemployment and the businesses that employed them are going to be digging out of this financial hole well past May 1, 2021," he said.
Northam also signed criminal justice reform measures, including bills that raise the felony larceny threshold; permanently eliminate driver's license suspensions for unpaid fines, fees, and court costs; and raise the age of juvenile transfer to adult court.