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Virginia Democrat's Pro-Labor Legislation Could Leave Behind Vulnerable Workers

Lenka Mendoza speaks at a recent press conference about exemptions for domestic workers in Virginia's labor laws.
Lenka Mendoza (center) speaks at a recent press conference about exemptions for domestic workers in Virginia's labor laws. (Craig Carper/VPM)

Lenka Mendoza has spent the better part of two decades as a domestic worker, cleaning homes and hotels. For a short time, she worked as a nanny, taking care of children. 

“There was a lot of affection for them,” Mendoza said. “Sometimes they would call me ‘mom’ and I would have to remind them ‘I'm not your mom!’” 

Some of the other places she’s worked have not been as rewarding. Mendoza, who moved to Prince William County from Peru, said many times the pay from house cleaning wasn’t even enough to afford her own child care.

“Your hours are not recognized,” she said. “You only get paid for eight hours and you don’t have the right to complain. Many of us are threatened for our migratory status.”

The working conditions at many of these jobs, Mendoza says, were also bad. She’s developed arthritis and respiratory issues from the cleaning chemicals. 

Mendoza is still brought to tears recounting the story of a pregnant coworker who worked 12 hour days, even when her husband was dying of cancer.

“The only day she took off was the day her husband died, and they deducted it from her pay,” she said. “He died that day, and the next day she had to go back to work.” 

Historically, people like Mendoza have been left out of a number of labor laws. 

With a new majority in the General Assembly, Virginia Democrats are passing sweeping pro-labor legislation, from new discrimination protections to an increased minimum wage. But long-standing exemptions to labor laws threaten to leave behind some of the most vulnerable workers. 

The Virginia Minimum Wage Act specifically exempts domestic workers. Some are also not covered by workplace protections like non-discrimination, workers' compensation and unemployment. 

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director for the group Care In Action, said the exemptions — many of which were written in the 1970s or earlier — have racist origins.

“We know that domestic workers are overwhelmingly women, and more than half are women of color,” Rodgers said. “Four hundred years ago, these jobs were done by black women who were brought here to serve property owning white men. Still today, we are trying to undo that racist history.” 

As House and Senate Democrats pass new discrimination protections and look to dramatically increase the minimum wage, they are split on whether domestic workers should be included.

There is also a rift on whether to repeal similar exemptions for farmworkers. 

A bill from Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) would ensure farmworkers are covered by a minimum wage increase. Guzman said, like domestic workers, people who provide the labor for Virginia’s agribusiness industry are mostly women of color who don’t get their due.

“I don’t think it is the Virginia Way to leave any workers behind, and if we are going to increase the minimum wage we must include the farmworkers,” she said. 

Guzman’s proposal to eliminate the farmworker exemption has been included in the House version of the minimum wage increase.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Farm Bureau declined to be interviewed for this story. They said in a written statement that a $15 minimum wage for farm workers could have a devastating impact on the more than 40,000 farms in the state. 

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that farmworkers already make roughly $13 dollar per hour on average.

Jason Yarashes, a lead attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center who works with farmworkers, said it’s important to note that eliminating the exemption would not prevent farm owners from paying people a set rate for the amount of produce they pick.

“We are simply saying that if you’re going to pay someone a piecemeal rate, that it needs to meet the minimum wage,” Yarashes said. “What we’re talking about here is paying a basic living wage to workers performing the most difficult, toiling, back-breaking work in the Commonwealth.”

A repeal of the farmworker's exemption is not included in the Senate version of this bill, where a group of senior pro-business Democrats are looking for compromise. Domestic workers are likewise left out. 

Sen. David Marsden (D-Alexandria) is one of the sponsors. He said the exemptions will likely be worked out in a closed-door negotiation process known as a conference committee. 

“There may be modifications rather than just eliminating exclusions,” Mardsen said. “That will be determined in the conference process.”

Separate legislation sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) would repeal the domestic worker exemption from the minimum wage act, but would put off repealing exemptions to workers compensation and non-discrimination laws. That bill has already passed the Senate and is likely to also pass the House.

There is currently no legislation outside of the House’s minimum wage bill that would repeal the exemption for farmworkers. 

Lenka Mendoza has spoken in support of McClellan’s bill. She said the inclusion of domestic and farm workers is necessary to ensure everyone has dignity at work.

“You would feel like your work is appreciated, considered and recognized,” she said. “It would mean having your rights be respected, as a human being and as a worker.”

But internal divisions between Virginia Democrats could mean workers like Mendoza will continue to wait. 

*VPM Intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza contributed to this report.