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Working Poor

Richmond looks for ways to make its contractors pay employees more.

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Until a councilman looked it up on his iPhone during a working meeting, the Richmond City Council wasn't sure exactly what the minimum wage was in Virginia. (It's $7.25 an hour.) But they agreed it wasn't enough.

Across the state, lawmakers, lobbyists and their disparate constituencies are readying for the looming General Assembly session. So is Richmond City Council.

In finalizing their legislative priorities earlier this month, council members agreed to push for a bill that would allow the city to require contractors it hires to pay their employees a so-called living wage when doing work on behalf of the city.

It's part of a uniquely Richmond legislative package that touches on Medicaid expansion, same-sex health benefits and whether people are allowed to shoot dogs attacking chickens.

As the council wrapped up debate, the only sticking point was whether to push for a living wage, defined as the minimum an employee needs to earn to meet basic needs. In Richmond, that's $10.35 an hour, according to calculations by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The cost of requiring contractors to pay their employees more for city work ultimately would be borne by the city — they would pass along the expense in the form of higher bids for city contracts. City Council policy analysts said they were unable to determine how much that would cost the city.

A handful of council members said they were uncomfortable pushing the measure before they knew what it might cost, but a majority were in favor.

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson was the most outspoken. She likened the move to the city's decision to extend health care benefits to the spouses of city employees in same-sex marriages, if the General Assembly ever recognizes such marriages.

"We spend all this time talking about how we want to change poverty in the city of Richmond," she said. "For us not to stand behind giving people a living wage — keeping people at a minimum salary — it's the principle of whether this city really cares about poverty."

City Council President Charles Samuels noted the measure might not do much to affect poverty in the city, noting that many employees live in other localities.

Robertson was unmoved. "Whether they live in the city or not," she replied, "if they're making $7 an hour off a city contract — they're poor wherever they are."

Either way, it's unlikely to matter. The city's lobbyist, R. Ronald Jordan, told the council the measure likely would die in a House of Delegates subcommittee. Alexandria made a similar push several years ago and didn't get anywhere, Jordan said.

Samuels wondered whether there was any chance of the state business lobby not "vehemently opposing" the measure.

"Slim to none," Jordan said.

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