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Public Employees: COVID-19 Reinforces Need for Unions

snowy state capitol building
Virginia is currently one of only three states that bans public sector collective bargaining. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia’s public employees are saying the coronavirus pandemic is another reason to allow for collective bargaining, not a reason to delay it. 

Local governments and business groups have asked Governor Ralph Northam to delay legalizing collective bargaining for public employees because of the public health crisis and the recession it is likely to cause. Virginia is currently one of only three states that has a blanket ban on public sector collective bargaining.

However, in a press call Monday, public employees say they want a seat at the table as decisions are being made rapidly to respond to COVID-19.

Durann Thompson, an elementary school teacher in Fairfax County, said she feels teachers’ voices have been disregarded as instruction moved online and schools were shuttered.

“We are frontline employees,” Thompson said. “Although I’m working from home, we’re trying to figure out how to get this instruction out to our students. The administration is making decisions and we have not been consulted.”

Other employees with the advocacy group “Stronger Communities, A Better Bargain” echoed Thompson's concerns.

As many local governments have furloughed or laid off workers, Tyrone McCutchen has become increasingly concerned about his future. McCutchen is a head custodian for Alexandria City Public Schools. 

He said on Monday that public employees deserve someone who will advocate for them during the uncertainty. 

“Somewhere down the line my job is probably going to be in jeopardy, and I would rather have someone on the inside than be on the outside looking in,” he said. 

Although unions and other advocates say there is no inherent cost to collective bargaining, local governments are concerned the legislation comes with an unknown price tag. In a letter to Northam from March 26, the Virginia Municipal League - an association of cities, towns and counties - called the bill an “unfunded state mandate.”

“Local budgets depend on property taxes, the local option sales tax, and business taxes,” the letter read. “Revenue from commercial properties are at risk as small local businesses close down. Whether these companies can hang on until the Coronavirus runs its course is unknown.”

The Virginia Municipal League is also asking the governor to delay implementing the minimum wage increase passed by the General Assembly. Asked about if Northam would consider such a measure, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Lane told VPM, “Everything is on the table.”

Northam has until midnight on April 11th to amend or sign legislation. Any amendments would need to be voted on by the General Assembly at its April 22 reconvened session.