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House Kills Bill Requiring Hazard Pay for Essential Employees

Lawmakers unanimously shot down legislation this week that would have required employers to provide hazard pay to essential employees and provide protective equipment in the event of a stay-at-home order.

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By Cameron Jones

Lawmakers unanimously shot down legislation this week that would have required employers to provide hazard pay to essential employees and provide protective equipment in the event of a stay-at-home order.

Del. Hala S. Ayala, D-Woodbridge, said she introduced House Bill 2015 to help protect and further compensate employees required to work during a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order.

The measure required that employers authorized to remain open must pay 1.5 times the regular rate of pay for hours worked during a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. Employers who failed to comply with the bill would be subject to civil penalties not exceeding $1,000 for each violation. A substitute for the bill defined essential employees as healthcare, homecare, airport, transit driver and essential retail workers. The substitute excluded restaurant workers.

“These workers are out there every day putting their lives on the line,” Ayala said. “Whether they’re health care workers or whether they’re grocery store workers, we need to take care of them.”

Ayala also said that a majority of the frontline workers are from minority communities. She said she believes this measure would even the playing field for those who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Business owners testified before a House committee that the increase in pay would lead to a cut in jobs. Airline workers also voiced concerns that such a measure would guarantee furlough.

“We included airport workers because they have also been disproportionately affected by COVID,” Ayala said. “The health threats they face are just as real now as they were at the beginning of this pandemic.”

 During the bill’s hearing in the Committee on Appropriations, multiple lawmakers noted that the bill would have tremendous potential to derail the budget.

The Department of Labor and Industry, or DOLI, forecast that several state agencies would see multi-million dollar monthly increases, according to the bill’s impact statement. DOLI also anticipated that new staff would need to be added to investigate claims.

Appropriations determined that the bill’s fiscal impact was too considerable amid other priorities and voted the measure down 21-0.

The bill stalled amid a House push for other progressive labor laws. A bill by Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman, D-Woodbridge, to provide paid sick leave to essential workers advanced to the House this week. It is the delegate’s fourth push for such employee protections.

A recent survey of state resident priorities released by the Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership found that worker’s rights have gained momentum. The center reported that 88% of residents support a minimum of five paid sick days a year.

Stephen Farnsworth, director at the Center for Leadership & Media Studies for the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said in an email that he believes more progressive changes will eventually come.

“The economic and health care crises we are dealing with in Virginia are putting the brakes on some of the new ideas offered by some of the newer members,” Farnsworth said. “Post-pandemic, some of these issues may have better luck.”

Farnsworth added that as more progressive candidates are elected, there will be more debate between more recently elected candidates and the more long-standing members. This debate among members is going to delay policy, but more progressive policy should be advanced in time, he said.

“While I am disappointed that this bill did not pass, I am proud to have patroned an important piece of legislation that would have helped Virginia workers throughout the COVID pandemic, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on passing other legislation to provide relief to our small businesses and working families,” Ayala said in an email.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Downtown

City Council unanimously approves sale of the Public Safety Building

The city is selling the three-acre property to Capital City Partners, LLC for $3,520,456 who will then redevelop the site into a $325 million mixed-use project anchored by VCU Health System, The Doorways, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

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Richmond City Council approved three Ordinances introduced by the Stoney Administration for the sale and redevelopment of the site of the of the existing Public Safety Building. The city is selling the three-acre property to Capital City Partners, LLC for $3,520,456 who will then redevelop the site into a $325 million mixed-use project anchored by VCU Health System, The Doorways, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

The negotiated sales price takes into account the developer’s responsibility to demolish the existing building and build public infrastructure that includes reconstructing Clay Street between 9th and 10th Streets.

“The sale and redevelopment of the Public Safety Building site is a critical first step to improving downtown,” said Mayor Levar Stoney.  “My Administration was glad to work with City Council and Capital City Partners, LLC to create this great win for Richmond.

The project will aid minority businesses, create child care slots for Richmond families, fund scholarships for graduates of Richmond Public Schools, and generate nearly $56 million in new revenue for the city’s General Fund over the first 25 years. We can, and we will, continue to grow Richmond by redeveloping underutilized city-owned property.”

“For many years the city has needed to find a better use for the Public Safety Building site.  I am glad that City Council has approved this important project that moves the city forward in redeveloping our Downtown, benefits our community, and strengthens healthcare in the city and region,” said Councilmember Ellen Robertson.

“We want to thank Mayor Stoney and Richmond City Council for supporting the sale of this property and allowing this important development to go forward.  Too often real estate transactions are thought of only in terms of investment and economics, but not in the lives they improve.  This project will help improve the lives of thousands of families in crises and will further Richmond’s reputation as an important healthcare capital,” said Capital City Partners’ Susan Eastridge and Michael Hallmark.

“VCU and VCU Health are strongly committed to the redevelopment of this area.  The Public Safety Building Project, along with the current construction of our new children’s inpatient hospital and Adult Outpatient Pavilion, will play a critical role in supporting a thriving urban center,” said Michael Rao, president of VCU and VCU Health System.

“We are pleased that the City has chosen to move forward with the sale of the Public Safety Building to Capital City Partners, LLC.  This announcement marks the beginning of a long-awaited initiative to breathe fresh life into this section of the city, while providing a much needed new home for The Doorways to lodge the thousands of families who depend on our services to access their medical care.  This announcement is truly a win-win for the Doorways and the entire Richmond community,” said Stacy Brinkley, President and CEO of The Doorways.

“As specialty pediatric care grows in the Richmond region, so does the need to support the whole family.  A new, fully-accessible Ronald McDonald House provides more capacity to help families whose sick and injured children are receiving care at all pediatric hospitals throughout the Richmond region as well as families whose children are the most vulnerable and medically complex being cared for at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.  This project is a game changer for pediatric healthcare,” said Kerry Blumberg, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond.

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Jefferson Davis Highway in the process of being renamed following House vote

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.

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By Cameron Jones

The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill renaming sections of U.S. Route 1 almost 100 years after it was named in honor of the first and only president of the Confederacy.

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.

Counties and cities have until Jan. 1, 2022 to change their portion of Jefferson Davis Highway to whatever name they choose, or the state will change it to Emancipation Memorial Highway.

“Change the name on your own, or the General Assembly will change it for you,” Cole said to House committee members.

Sections of the highway that run through Stafford, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Chesterfield counties will need new signage and markers, according to the bill’s impact statement. Commemorative naming signs will be replaced, along with overhead guide signs at interchanges and street-name signs. The changes are estimated to cost almost $600,000 for all localities. The changes in Chesterfield will cost an estimated $373,000 because there are 17 Jefferson Davis Highway overhead signs on Routes 288 and 150.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the plan for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Davis was a Mississippi senator who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginia General Assembly designated U.S. Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922.

“Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, a constant reminder of a white nationalist experiment, and a racist Democrat,” Cole said. “Instead we can acknowledge the powerful act of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Cole said the change acknowledges the positive history of the Civil War and reminds people of the emancipation and freedom that came from it.

The bill received little pushback in House and Senate committees. A Richmond City representative said their initial concern was the interpretation if districts would have the opportunity to choose a replacement name. Signs are already going up renaming the route to Richmond Highway in Richmond.

Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, voiced his support for the bill. He responded to concern that the change dishonors a veteran. He said he believes the bill “strikes a reasonable balance” by giving counties time to rename their portion of the highway, or they will give it a default name which “doesn’t carry the political baggage.”

A poll by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Virginians are still divided on changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders (44% supported the idea and 43% opposed it).

Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, said there were two camps of people that opposed the bill. He said some were openly racist and called Cole’s office to make offensive remarks. Then there were people who said they did not want to “double dip” on renaming the portion in their respective district and wanted it all to be named Richmond Highway.

Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said efforts to rename the highway have never received much support in Richmond until this year.

“Virginia has rapidly moved from a commonwealth that treasured its Confederate legacy, to one that is trying to move beyond it,” Farnsworth said.

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Delegate celebrates Senate passage of limited paid leave bill

The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of a bill by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, mandating paid sick leave. The substitute bill, which now only extends to some in-home health care workers, heads back to the House where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

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By Zachary Klosko

After four years and multiple bills, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, is on the cusp of being able to secure paid leave for some Virginia workers.

“It feels really good,” Guzmán said. “I think about the amount of people who are going to get this benefit and how they will have peace of mind to stay home and take care of family members if they are unwell.”

The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of the delegate’s legislation that mandates paid sick leave for some in-home health care workers. The substitute bill heads back to the House, where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

Guzmán took to Twitter after the Senate’s 21-18 vote to express her excitement.

“Thank you!!” Guzmán wrote on Twitter. “We did it!!”

House Bill 2137 originally offered the benefit to many essential workers, including first responders, retail workers, cleaning workers, teachers, jail and prison employees and transportation workers.

 The bill advanced from the House with an amendment for small businesses; it did not apply to retail businesses with fewer than 25 employees. The Senate later amended the bill to only offer the benefit to in-home health care workers who serve patients with Medicaid coverage.

The substitute still requires employers to set aside one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees must work at least an average of 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month to qualify. Once covered, workers will be allowed paid leave if they are sick or if they need to care for a sick family member. Unused sick leave can be carried over to the year after it was earned.

The amended bill will protect 25,000 workers, according to a press release by Guzmán.

Guzmán says her work is not done.

“I will continue to fight as lieutenant governor, I will continue to fight as a delegate,” Guzmán said. “Whichever role I’m in, I will continue to fight.”

Guzmán is running for lieutenant governor. Among others in the race, she is facing Del. Hala Ayala, another Democrat from Prince William County. If successful, Ayala or Guzmán would become the first Latina to serve in the role.

If signed into law, those covered will begin to accrue paid leave hours on July 1.

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