Minimum wage hike, bag tax among Va. lawmakers’ work, environment and health proposals

Raising the minimum wage, implementing new environmental rules such as a fee for plastic grocery bags and taking steps to address health care costs are among items on the agenda as Virginia lawmakers return to Richmond this week.

Bills introduced ahead of the start of the 60-day session Wednesday would more than double the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour. The changes would be phased in over the next three to five years. Other versions of the proposal could raise the wage more slowly, or to $10.10 per hour in 2021 then peg it to inflation.

Another measure would provide a guaranteed 30-day protection from eviction or foreclosure for federal workers or contractors who are furloughed or otherwise not paid during a federal government shutdown.


Gun-related bills on the table in Virginia’s General Assembly


Environment

A 5-cent fee for plastic bags, either in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed or in areas where local governments adopt it for environmental funding, is up for consideration again this year.

There is also a proposal to ban polystyrene containers or let local governments ban the foam containers from certain restaurants, as Maryland and D.C. have done.

Releasing balloons into the air could also become against the law as part of efforts to limit pollution.

Broader environmental proposals targeting greenhouse gases include a carbon dioxide cap and trade plan, expanded allowance for solar panels on homes and businesses and setting mandatory clean energy plan goals of net-zero carbon emissions for Virginia’s electricity grid by 2040 and for other industries, such as transportation, by 2050.

There are also proposals to ban hydraulic fracturing, expand offshore wind farms, study the risk of water supply shortages, provide financial support for areas dealing with rising sea levels or growing weather worries and study climate change impacts, to expand local tree protections, and to better track Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The most wide-reaching proposal would ban any approval of fossil-fuel-driven power plants, refineries and other usage, with a requirement that at least 80% of electricity sold in Virginia be from solar, wind or hydropower by 2028 and 100% meet that requirement by 2036.

Buildings would also be required to become more efficient, workers in the fossil fuel industry would get support finding new jobs, and the changes would have to incorporate fairness goals to protect marginalized communities.

The “Green New Deal Act” was introduced by delegates Sam Rasoul, representing Roanoke; Joshua Cole, representing the Fredericksburg area; Patrick Hope representing Arlington; Clinton Jenkins, representing Chesapeake-Suffolk; Kaye Kory, representing Fairfax; and Ibraheem Samirah, representing Fairfax-Loudoun.

Other proposals would adopt California’s vehicle emissions rules, ban the sale of water bottles made with bisphenol A, or require local governments to promote transit-oriented development to reduce pollution by coordinating transportation, housing and land use.

There is also a series of bills that challenge Dominion Energy’s rates and large campaign contributions, suggest new taxes, tighten eminent domain rules or push for more renewable energy.

After recent controversy over menhaden fishing, a number of bills would set new management requirements or penalties for violations, among other changes.

Health

A number of proposals aim to limit health insurance costs or other bills, or require coverage for people with specific conditions or needs.

Among the plans, Virginia would establish a state health insurance exchange by 2023, as permitted under the Affordable Care Act, and could provide certain additional tax breaks for health care costs or even cap the out-of-pocket price for insulin.

Several legislators are proposing studies of drug and health care costs and the possibility of universal health care coverage.

Other bills would limit “balance billing” — where a patient can face unexpected bills after an out-of-network emergency room visit — require upfront estimates of the costs for nonemergency procedures and tweak the certificate of public need laws that determine if new medical facilities are approved.

New licensing could be required for pharmacy benefits managers and teenagers could also get permission to consent to recommended vaccinations.

After cutting the so-called “tampon tax” last session that went into effect at the start of this month, the General Assembly is considering cutting the tax entirely. The proposal would maintain the current 1.5% grocery store tax on diapers and bed sheets.

Family members who have to help a loved one with daily living could also get a new tax credit for costs related to the care.

Virginia’s limited needle exchange programs could also become permanent.

Additional minimum wage proposals, work rules

Local governments could be allowed to adopt higher minimum wages in their city or county than the statewide rate, even after increases are approved by the General Assembly.

Several measures would aim to protect workers from wrongly being classified as tipped employees for all or part of their shifts, which allows companies to pay a lower minimum wage. That lower, tipped minimum wage could also be increased to as much as half the regular minimum wage.

Virginia could also follow federal contract policies that require payment of the prevailing wage for workers involved in public contracts, and permit the state and local governments to require project labor agreements with unions for public projects.

Other changes could eliminate some exceptions to minimum wage, including for people who are normally paid based on the amount of work done rather than by the hour, for people classified as disabled, for people working for someone with fewer than four employees, and for people employed in private homes.

The General Assembly will also consider guaranteeing paid sick leave for workers, up to four days per year, or establishing a state-funded program based on a 0.2% payroll tax that would pay for up to 66% of a worker’s regular salary for up to 60 days per year of leave that is protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Workers could also get four guaranteed “safe days” per year with pay, if they are victims or family members of a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. The days would be intended to give time for medical care, counseling, moving or attending to the legal process.

A separate bill would require clear, broad workplace harassment policies with tougher penalties for violations by members of the General Assembly, their staff or other people who work in the legislative branch. Violations can also lead to payment of punitive damages. Lobbyists could also be required to take sexual harassment training.

Low-income workers could also get protections against companies requiring noncompete clauses, and all workers would be guaranteed written disclosures of their pay rates and the identification of their employer or supervisor.

People applying for jobs with the state could get preference if they have a disability that does not prevent them from doing the job. And, the General Assembly could “ban the box” by barring questions on state and local agency job applications about criminal history. That bill would exempt applications for law enforcement or other sensitive jobs, and questions would be permitted after a prospective employee is interviewed.

Similarly, there are proposals that would bar any company or public agency from requiring job applicants provide their salary history, prevent use of a wage history to determine the salary offered at the new job, and prevent a company from penalizing workers for discussing their salaries.

Another bill would prevent employers from forcing workers to buy any materials needed to do their jobs.

Workers’ compensation

A series of changes to workers’ compensation law could provide new benefits for first responders and make the process easier for others.

Several bills would expand the qualifying reasons for workers’ compensation to include post-traumatic stress for law enforcement and firefighters, expand claims for correctional officers and police dispatchers, and expand the cancers presumed to be linked to a career as a firefighter.

Other proposals would require employers to provide an answer about workers’ compensation claims within 21 days, bar retaliation for filing a claim and address injuries while temporarily working across state lines, such as in D.C. or Maryland.

Virginia workers could also see carpal tunnel or other repetitive motion injuries treated as an accidental injury under the state’s workers’ compensation law, rather than the current law that specifically says carpal tunnel is simply an ordinary disease of life.

Union, worker rights

Virginia could allow collective bargaining for public employees, strikes by public employees other than law enforcement officers and even repeal the law supporters refer to as “right-to-work,” which prevents contracts between unions and companies that require union membership.

Other bills would give workers the ability to sue for unpaid wages plus court costs and interest, protect them from retaliation over any lawsuit or complaint and allow broader state investigations of companies that have failed to pay their workers.

Tax benefits

A state incentive for companies to provide transit or ride-sharing commuter benefits of up to $265 per month could add an additional incentive to companies to provide the cash to workers.

Other tax-related proposals would extend or add hotel taxes, extend a green job tax credit, establish a sales tax exemption for gun safes, add tax credits for certain TV production and extend other credits.

Credit, loans

New regulations and licensing requirements are possible for high-interest and payday loans.

The General Assembly is also considering requiring credit freezes to be allowed for free, rather than the current permission of up to a $5 fee.

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