After Democratic Takeover, Virginia Is No Longer Ranked 'Worst U.S. State For Workers' Only three years ago anti-poverty group Oxfam ranked Virginia the country's worst state for workers, but this year it jumped to 23rd.
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After Democratic Takeover, Virginia Is No Longer Ranked 'Worst U.S. State For Workers'

Workers in Virginia now enjoy better protections and higher wages than they did just a few years ago, according to anti-poverty organization Oxfam. USDA/ hide caption

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Conditions for workers in Virginia have improved considerably since Democrats took control of the commonwealth's General Assembly in 2019, according to a new assessment by anti-poverty organization Oxfam America.

Oxfam ranked Virginia the "worst state for workers" in 2018 and 2019, based on its analysis of worker protections, union organizing rights, and wage laws in 50 states and D.C. But Virginia leapt to #23 in the organization's 2021 rankings, released Wednesday.

Democratic leaders in Virginia are taking credit for the improved ranking, calling it a testament to legislation they have passed since their party won a majority in the legislature.

"In under two years, we have completely turned things around by passing legislation to facilitate healthier working conditions, better compensation, and protection against discrimination," Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said in a statement.

Since 2019, House and Senate Democrats in Virginia have approved new protections for domestic workers and the state's first minimum wage increase since 2009. Democrats also passed legislation allowing local governments to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with public sector workers, an historic leftward leap for the "right to work" state where labor laws have traditionally favored employers.

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The shift is "a direct result of communities and workers organizing for policy change, leading to important actions taken by the Virginia legislature and Governor Ralph Northam," Oxfam wrote in its report. "This previously lagging state has proactively demonstrated a new and serious investment in the well-being and dignity of all workers."

Republicans and some moderate Democrats in the General Assembly attempted to pump the brakes on some worker-friendly legislation, including the minimum-wage increase, which drew pushback from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who believed it could damage Virginia's reputation as the most business-friendly state in the country.

Lawmakers ultimately passed a watered-down version of the minimum wage bill that requires the legislature to take another vote on wage increases in 2024. If approved, Virginia's minimum wage will reach $15 in 2026.

Business interests also lobbied heavily against an effort led by Gov. Ralph Northam to pass statewide workplace health and safety standards during COVID-19. Virginia was the first state to take that step during the pandemic, though state regulators are moving to loosen the standards to conform with CDC guidelines.

Despite the wave of Democrat-sponsored labor bills, an effort to repeal the commonwealth's right to work statute failed this year. And Virginia has maintained its good standing among employers, at least according to an annual list published by CNBC. The media network ranked Virginia the country's "top state for business" in 2021 — its fifth time in the top slot.

"This year's Top States study was always going to be a verdict on which states were best poised to succeed coming out of the pandemic, and Virginia is a clear winner on that score," CNBC Special Correspondent Scott Cohn said in July. "Not only does it have the talent that companies are craving, it has also taken major steps in the area of inclusiveness, which is especially important this year."

But some Republicans say the rankings don't reflect the overall health of Virginia's economy, and that some worker laws could lead to losses in other areas.

The rankings "present a very narrow view of the economic picture of Virginia," says Geary Higgins, chairman of the 10th District GOP. Businesses in the state continue to struggle to fill jobs after the pandemic forced establishments to close, he says, and the jury is still out on whether collective bargaining will make governments work better.

"[Higher] wages for employees don't necessarily equate to efficient government operations," Higgins says.

D.C. dropped in Oxfam's rankings this year, falling to No. 5 from No. 2 in 2020, driven mostly by gains made by other states. Maryland rose slightly, from No. 17 last year to No. 16 this year.

North Carolina now occupies Oxfam's lowest ranking at No. 52, and Oregon took the No. 1 spot. The Beaver State "leads the nation with laws aimed to improve compensation and conditions in the workplace," Oxfam wrote in a scorecard.

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