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Could Virginia finally implement a minimum wage for farmworkers?

Plenty of pumpkins to choose from at Jeter Farm in Roanoke near Bonsack.
Craig Wright
Rows of pumpkins at Jeter Farm in Roanoke near Bonsack.

Members of the General Assembly are considering a bill that would overturn a law from the Jim Crow era.

Jim Crow racism was the reason why farmworkers were exempted from the minimum wage. It was part of a compromise in the 1930s to get the votes to pass a minimum wage.

"When we passed the Virginia minimum wage act, we left behind some of the hardest workers in Virginia and we cannot continue to leave these workers behind for another year," says Delegate Adele McClure, a Democrat from Arlington who wants to end the exemption.

"This is an antiquated law that only benefits Big Agriculture and poses a significant disadvantage to the small-medium scale farmers who are the backbone of Virginia agriculture."

Cliff Williamson at the Virginia Agribusiness Council says removing the exemption would be a mistake.

"Many of our businesses are paying above minimum wage. That is because we are able to negotiate off of that minimum floor, that lower floor than our competitors in the non-ag space has to offer," Williamson says. "That will change when this exemption goes away, and our entry point will then be at the same place as everyone else."

The bill has already been approved by the House and is expected to be considered in the Senate next week.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.