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More than 3,800 state workers paid under federal poverty level
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More than 3,800 state workers paid under federal poverty level

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Mcdonald's protest

Bianca Waddy a fast-food worker in Mechanicsville joined other protesters outside the McDonald's on Chamberlayne Ave. seeking a raise to $15 per hour.

When the General Assembly convenes in January, Democratic lawmakers will push again for an increase in the minimum wage — an almost quixotic legislative effort that this year eked out of the Virginia Senate, only to die in committee in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.

But as legislators debate, or dismiss, bills such as Sen. Dave Marsden’s Senate Bill 681, which would raise the minimum wage incrementally from its current $7.25 to $10.10 by 2017, they will have to come to grips with yet another disturbing trend in their own fiscal backyard.

More than 3,800 state employees — nearly 4 percent of the state workforce — make annual salaries that are below the federal poverty level of $23,850 for a family of four.

RELATED: 2013-14 State employee salary database

Of that number, more than 900 state employees earn salaries below the federal poverty level of $19,970 for families of three, and 135 make less than the federal poverty level of $15,730 for two-person households.

Eight employees don’t earn enough from their state jobs to exceed the $11,670 federal poverty level for individuals.

The jobs of the state employees in the poverty zone include hospital food service workers and housekeepers, school security officers, mental health workers, deputy sheriffs, corrections workers, secretaries, researchers and associate professors.

In some respects, their plight is not surprising, given the number of state workers who are dependent on federal assistance.

That number has increased more than 150 percent — from 892 in 2011 to 2,287 in 2013, according to statistics compiled by the state Department of Human Resources Management.

The difference is even more pronounced going back six years earlier. Only 12 state employees received assistance in 2007.

In 2011, the state had 856 employees receiving food stamps; in 2013 that number increased 150 percent to 1,898, according to DHRM. In 2007, no state employees received food stamps.

There also has been a jump in state workers receiving Medicaid benefits — from 97 in 2011 to 729 in 2013.

The number of employees receiving funding under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has jumped from 12 to 88, while 575 employees qualified for energy assistance from the federal government in 2013.

Meanwhile, more than 9,600 full-time state employees qualified in 2013 for the earned-income tax credit, a federal tax subsidy for low-income working families.

“The stagnation of wages has been a continuing problem,” said Marsden, D-Fairfax.

He said that since the General Assembly changed the compensation formula for state employees in the 1990s, lawmakers have not lived up to the promise to fill the gap by providing funding for merit-based increases in pay. The result has been years of wage stagnation and compression, as the cost of living has risen. “They’ve gone backwards,” Marsden said.

Planned wage increases for state employees were tabled earlier this year when a drop in revenues compelled Gov. Terry McAuliffe and legislative leaders to cut $2.4 billion from the biennial budget and lay off 500 workers.

The plight of state workers puts into sharp relief a problem that advocates have been pressing for several years — that American workers, particularly those with families, cannot support themselves on the minimum wage without assistance.

“Try it — go one week on $7.25” an hour, said Tiffany Bell, 31, a Richmond mother of two small children who worked a minimum-wage job at a McDonald’s restaurant.

She said the costs to support a family like hers sometimes comes down to making a choice between paying bills and feeding her children.

“We want more — we need more,” she said during a press briefing on Marsden’s bill last week sponsored by Progress Virginia. “We work hard.”

Under the current minimum wage standard in Virginia, a full-time minimum-wage employee makes $15,080 a year, or $650 less than the federal poverty level for a two-person household.

According to Progress Virginia, an increase in the minimum wage would affect about 300,000 children and about 368,000 workers — more than half of whom work full time.

The left-leaning advocacy group also raised an issue of economic fairness, saying that while CEO pay increased 875 percent from 1978 to 2012, accounting for inflation, pay for the average worker increased only 5 percent. The group said that people earning the minimum wage in 1968 would be making the equivalent of $10.77 today.

The liberal advocacy group Virginia Organizing said only 26 percent of full-time workers in Virginia earn a wage that allow a single working parent with two children to make ends meet.

The report the group referenced, produced by the Alliance for a Just Society, claimed that only 19 percent of all women and 20 percent of people of color working full time in Virginia earn enough to support two children.

The group used the report to urge state lawmakers to consider expanding Medicaid, increasing the minimum wage, and making the Virginia earned income tax credit refundable.

“As our elected officials consider how to manage budget shortfalls, Virginia Organizing urges them not to do so on the backs of the hardworking Virginia families already struggling to make ends meet,” said Sandra A. Cook, director of Virginia Organizing.

“We need to put real money in people’s pockets,” Marsden said. “They’re trying to earn their way through life, and not through handouts.”

Still, the Democrat acknowledged his bill is “going to be challenged” to clear the 2015 General Assembly.

Part of the reason is the divide on the issue with Republicans and a large part of the business community, which believes raising the wage would hurt not only businesses but also employment opportunities for workers.

Nicole Riley, head of the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said raising the minimum wage in the commonwealth would limit the flexibility of small businesses and discourage them from hiring new employees.

“Increasing their cost of labor is not going to help increase new jobs,” she said.


jnolan@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @RTDNolan

More than 3,800 state employees - nearly 4 percent of the state workforce - make annual salaries that are below the federal poverty level of $23,850 for a family of four.

Of that number, more than 900 state employees earn salaries below the federal poverty level of $19,970 for families of three, and 135 make less than the federal poverty level of $15,730 for two-person households.

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