Minimum wage, underemployment are issues in Rockbridge County

By Polli Noskova and Nelson Helm

 

Keisha Johns, 22, works at Subway and makes $8.25 per hour. For her, an increase in the minimum wage would mean a re-tiled kitchen floor at home and extra money for her upcoming wedding.

 

“It certainly would mean wiggle room,” she said.

 

Johns, who works between 20 and 35 hours per week, recognized that her extra pay might mean a decrease in her number of hours as well.

 

“It could be a double-edged sword,” she said.

 

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not been increased since 2009, but currently 29 states have raised their rates above that threshold. Just in January of this year, nineteen states had raised their minimum wage rates, Arizona by as much as $1.95.

 

Virginia is one of 21 states staying with the federal minimum wage rate. In the 2017 General Assembly, five bills seeking to raise the state’s minimum failed to make it out of committee in both the Senate and the House of Delegates. Under two of the bills, the state minimum wage would have risen to $15 by July 2019.

 

Jason Harris – whose local businesses include three Subways and Salerno Pizzeria, Bar and Bistro – employs around 70 people and provides a starting wage of $8.25 per hour, one dollar above the minimum.

 

Harris said he hopes the higher wages attract a higher-caliber employee.

 

If the minimum wage were to rise, Harris said that while it would increase payroll costs for business owners, it could also have positive effects such as increased consumer spending.

 

“You don’t know what the trickle-down effect of raising rates will be until it happens,” he said.

 

Sen. Creigh Deeds, whose district includes Rockbridge and Bath counties and part of Augusta County, was on the state Senate Finance Committee the last time a minimum-wage bill made it to the Senate floor in 2014. Deeds said that he doesn’t expect another bill to get out of committee in either house until at least 2019, when Virginia Democrats “have a good shot” of taking control of the Senate.

 

While higher wages could improve the lives of America’s workers, The New York Times reported in January that some economists worry pay increases could lead to slower job creation or even cuts.

 

The Rockbridge area is home to 1,791 underemployed workers – people trained to work in higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs than those ones they have, according to Washington and Lee University’s 2016 Rockbridge Community Profile. The report also found that community leaders believe the area is not responding effectively to employment issues.

 

Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman said underemployment has been a constant in the area since the 1980s, as far as he knows. He said he sees a lot of qualified, experienced and educated people doing service jobs, because those are the only local jobs available, aside from those at the colleges.

 

“I would have no objection to supporting workers and businesses in finding a way to raise the minimum wage for people to have a better quality of life,” Friedman said.

 

But he added that when considering a higher base pay, you have to be able to gauge whether higher pay would increase productivity, or if it would just add another expense and endanger businesses – and in turn, jobs.

 

“Underemployed is a heck of a lot better than unemployed, I can tell you that from personal experience,” he said.

 

One way that Virginia lawmakers are trying to combat underemployment is through the state’s community colleges. Deeds said the economy has changed in significant ways, and that one way to help workers is to retrain them for the jobs that are available.

 

Different community colleges around the state, he said, including Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, have specialized programs that help retrain workers in the region. In Rockbridge, workers can take classes for certificates in culinary arts, welding, and massage therapy, among others. Deeds said these programs are designed to “help people step right into the workplace.”

Dabney S. Lancaster is now offering specialized programs to help retrain workers in the region.

Meanwhile, the Lexington Chamber of Commerce is working with the community college to “tackle local workforce issues,” Executive Director Tracy Lyons said in an email.

 

The chamber surveyed local businesses, Lyons said, and found that they are having a hard time attracting and retaining employees. She said a job fair last spring that featured 42 employers had lower than expected turnout.

 

“Throughout the four-hour fair, we only had 40 individuals walk through the door looking for employment,” she said. “Thus, the need to have some deeper conversations about how we can help develop and engage our workforce.”

 

Deeds said he believed that workforce issues could be stemming from young people leaving the area for higher paying jobs elsewhere.

 

“That is why places, like Rockbridge, you can’t be satisfied with the status quo,” Deeds said.