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Governor Northam launches Return to Earn Grant Program to help Virginians transition back to work

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On June 11, 20212, Governor Ralph Northam announced a new $3 million investment to pilot the Return to Earn Grant Program, which will match payments from eligible small businesses to provide new hires with up to $1,000 to support their transition back into the workforce. While many companies are offering hiring bonuses, the Return to Earn Grant Program will serve businesses with less than 100 employees that may not have the resources to provide this financial support. The initial launch of this program will be funded through Virginia’s federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) set aside, and additional recovery funds may be allocated based on demand.

“Many Virginians who lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic still face a variety of barriers to returning to work like access to affordable child care, transportation, and a living wage,” said Governor Northam. “These bonuses will serve as an incentive for unemployed workers to get back into the workforce, while also helping employers fill vacant jobs. The Virginia Return to Earn Grant Program is about empowering the true catalysts of our economic comeback—Virginia’s workers and small businesses.”

This initiative will match up to $500 that a qualifying small business pays directly to a new employee hired after May 31, 2021, either as a lump sum or in installments to offset the ongoing costs of child care, transportation, or other barriers to re-employment. Funds will only be reimbursed to businesses for new hires in positions that pay at least $15 per hour and that qualify as W-2 employment, either full- or part-time. To help address workforce shortages in child care, qualifying child care businesses may qualify for up to $500 per new hire without the match requirement.

“For Virginia to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic on our economy, we need targeted solutions,” said Chief Workforce Development Advisor Dr. Megan Healy. “One in three Virginia workers has applied for unemployment benefits over the course of the pandemic. The new Return to Earn Grant Program will accomplish a dual purpose of helping unemployed Virginian’s transition back into living-wage jobs, particularly in the child care industry, and supporting small businesses with their hiring needs.”


The launch of the Return to Earn Grant Program coincides with the reinstatement of the weekly work search requirement in Virginia, which started the week of May 31, 2021. Virginians receiving unemployment benefits must make contact with employers each week and accept reasonable offers of employment.

On June 1, the Commonwealth also reopened its Virginia Career Works Centers for in-person services to ensure that Virginians making the transition back to the workforce have access to the resources they need to find high-quality jobs. Job seekers can continue to access resources virtually through the Virginia Career Works Referral Portal.

For additional information on requirements and to apply for Return to Earn grant funding, small businesses should contact their local Virginia Career Works Center. 

Answers to frequently asked questions.

1. What is the Virginia Return to Earn Grant Program?

Unemployed Virginians are facing a variety of childcare, transportation, and other barriers to returning to the workforce while some small businesses are struggling to find workers. To support Virginians in their transition back to employment, Governor Ralph Northam will invest $3 million in federal WIOA set aside funds to pilot the VA Return to Earn Grant Program. The pilot initiative will match up to $500 that a qualifying small business pays directly to a new employee hired on or after May 31st, 2021 to support their transition back to employment. Funds will only be reimbursed for new hires in positions that pay at least $15 per hour and qualify as W-2 employment, either full- or part-time. Qualifying small childcare businesses, who may be facing particularly challenging workforce shortages, may qualify for up to $500 per new hire without the requirement to match.

2. Which small businesses are eligible for funds through the VA Return to Earn Grant Program?

A business must have 100 or fewer employees and be incorporated in Virginia. The employee count is the sum of the business’s employees across all Virginia locations. Qualifying childcare businesses, who may be facing particularly challenging workforce shortages, are eligible for 100% reimbursement for up to $500 per new hire. This means that no match is required from the childcare business to receive funding for new hires through the grant program.

3. What qualifies as a “childcare business”?

A childcare business may be a sole proprietorship, partnership or corporation, with services delivered in home- and/or center-based settings. These businesses may be licensed or legally exempted from licensing by the state.

4. Which job positions are eligible for funds through the VA Return to Earn Grant Program?

Funds will only be reimbursed for new hires in positions that pay at least $15 per hour and qualify as W-2 employment, either full- or part-time.

5. Is there a limit to the number of new hires eligible for reimbursement through the VA Return to Earn Grant Program?

Yes, qualifying small businesses are eligible for a match of up to $500 per new hire for up to 25 new employees. These must have been hired on or after May 31st, 2021.

6. How can VA Return to Earn funds be used?

Funds are only reimbursable through the VA Return to Earn Grant Program if they are provided by a qualifying small business directly to a qualifying new hire, either as a lump sum or in installments to offset the ongoing costs of childcare, transportation, or other barriers to re-employment.

7. How should a qualifying small business apply for reimbursement of funds through the VA Return to Earn Grant Program?

For additional information on requirements and to apply for grant funding, small businesses should contact their local Virginia Career Works Center. Funds will only be reimbursed once they have been fully paid to the new hire.

8. This program matches up to $500 provided to a new hire to support their re-employment, for a total of $1000. If I am a qualifying small business, can I give the new hire a stipend that is more than $1000?

Yes, it is at the discretion of the employer as to how much is provided to the new employee. The VA Return to Earn Program will reimburse for 50% of the funds provided but only up to $500 per new hire. Childcare businesses will receive 100% reimbursement for up to $500 per new hire.

9. How is the initial $3 million in funding for the VA Return to Earn Grant Program being allocated across the Commonwealth? What happens if the money runs out?

Grant funds will be allocated across Virginia’s workforce development areas proportional to the number of current continuing unemployment insurance claims in each region. The initial $3 million allocated from WIOA Governor’s set-aside funds will serve to pilot the approach, and additional funding may be allocated depending on demand for the program.

10. What other strategies is the Commonwealth employing to support people with their return to work and ensure that employers have the workforce they need to fuel Virginia’s economic recovery?

The launch of the new Return to Earn Grant Program coincides with the reinstatement of the Virginia work search requirement beginning the week of May 31, 2021. Virginians receiving unemployment benefits must make contact with employers each week and accept reasonable offers of employment. On June 1, the Commonwealth reopened its Virginia Career Works Centers for in-person services to ensure that Virginians making the transition back to the workforce have access to the resources they need to find a high-quality job. Jobseekers can continue to access resources virtually through the Virginia Career Works Referral Portal.

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CDC updates mask wearing guidelines

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On July 27, 2021, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) updated its mask-wearing guidelines as follows:

  • If you are fully vaccinated, you can participate in many of the activities that you did before the pandemic.
  • To maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.
  • Wearing a mask is most important if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated. If this applies to you or your household, you might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission in your area.
  • You should continue to wear a mask where required by law, rules, regulations, or local guidance.

The CDC has the level of Community Transmission in Warren County as high.

The Virginia Department of Health reports the following:

 

Dr. Rochelle Walensky and CDC officials held a briefing on July 27, 2021, to provide updated guidance on mask-wearing for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.


“In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant,”  Said Dr. Walensky.

Here is the transcript from that meeting:

Dr. Rochelle Walensky: As you have heard from me previously, this pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans. I have said, throughout my tenure at CDC, that our guidance and recommendations will follow the science in our efforts to protect the health of as many Americans as possible. And today we have new science related to the Delta variant that requires us to update the guidance regarding what you can do when you are fully vaccinated. The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it.

This week, our data showed that Delta remains the predominant variant circulating in the United States. Eight in 10 sequence samples contain the Delta variant. In recent days, I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19. Information on the Delta variant from several states and other countries indicates that on rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations.

First, we continue to strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated continues to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death, even with Delta. It also helps reduce the spread of the virus in our communities. Vaccinated individuals continue to represent a very small amount of transmission occurring around the country. We continue to estimate that the risk of a breakthrough infection with symptoms upon exposure to the Delta variant is reduced by seven-fold. The reduction is 20-fold for hospitalizations and deaths. As CDC has recommended for months, unvaccinated individuals should get vaccinated and continue masking until they are fully vaccinated.

In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant and protect others. This includes schools. CDC recommends that everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place. Finally, CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission.

With the Delta variant, vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever. The highest spread of cases and severe outcomes are happening in places with low vaccination rates and among unvaccinated people. This moment and most importantly, the associated illness, suffering, and death could have been avoided with higher vaccination coverage in this country. COVID-19 continues to present many challenges and has exacted a tremendous toll on our nation. We continue to follow the science closely and update the guidance should the science shift again. We must take every step we can to stop the Delta variant and end this pandemic. Now I’m happy to take your questions. Thank you.

What does this mean for vaccinated Americans? Who are these guidelines trying to protect if vaccinated Americans are not commonly hospitalized or dying from COVID and transmission is not as common? Are these guidelines mostly trying to protect them or the unvaccinated? And if it’s the latter, then how do these guidelines protect vaccinated and if this is the latter, then how do these guidelines protect the unvaccinated? 

I think the most important thing to understand is the vaccines continued to do an exceptional job in protecting the individual who is vaccinated from severe illness, hospitalization, and death, and even, I guess, mild illness as they have indicated.

But your point is well taken and what is different with the Delta variant than what the Alpha variant is that in those cases, those rare cases that we have breakthrough infections, we felt it important for people to understand that they have the potential to transmit the virus to others.

Now, importantly, to convey in all of this is that of the transmission that is happening in the country right now, the vast majority of transmission occurring is occurring through unvaccinated individuals. But on that exception that there might have a vaccine breakthrough, we thought it was important for people to understand that they could pass the disease onto someone else. And that is important in the case, for example, of a vaccinated individual who might be going to visit an immunocompromised family member. We wanted to make sure that they took the precautions necessary to not pass the virus to them.

Is there a better way to think about the situation with Delta now? What are you telling your vaccinated friends and family when they go out for dinner, for example?

I think we still largely are in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The vast majority of transmission, the vast majority of severe disease, hospitalization, and death, is almost exclusively happening among unvaccinated people which is why we so very much want to double down on making sure people continue to get vaccinated.

That said if you have vaccinated individuals who are in a place that with substantial or high transmission, there are contacting a lot of people, one in 21 in 10 of those contacts, could potentially lead to a breakthrough infection if you have an effectiveness of 90 to 95%. And so that’s why we’re saying in areas of substantial or high transmission, even if you are vaccinated, that we believe it’s important to wear a mask in those settings.

One, you said that you are seeing some who are fully vaccinated contribute to the spread. Can you say exactly how many people you have seen from this data that are vaccinated that are spreading this?

And secondly, when it comes to having everyone, regardless of vaccination status wear a mask in school, can you explain the thinking behind that? And are you worried that it will take away the incentive for some parents to get their children who are eligible to be vaccinated, vaccinated?

First, with regard to your first question, we are now actively conducting outbreak investigations of what is occurring in places that are having clusters and many of you have heard of many of those clusters.

 What we’ve learned in that context is that when we examine the rarer breakthrough infections, and we look at the amount of virus in those people, it is pretty similar to the amount of viruses in unvaccinated people. We are now continuing to follow those clusters to understand the impact of forward transmission of those vaccinated people. But again, I want to reiterate, we believe the vast majority of transmission is occurring in unvaccinated people and through unvaccinated people. But unlike the Alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn’t believe that if you were vaccinated, you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant, and we’re seeing now that it’s actually possible if your rare breakthrough infection that you can transmit further, which is the reason for the change.

With regard to school, when we released our school guidance on July 9th, we had less Delta variants in this country. We had fewer cases in this country. And importantly, we were really hopeful that we would have more people vaccinated, especially in the demographic between 12 and 17 years old.

Next week, we have many school systems that are starting around the country and I think we all agree that children 11 and less are not going to be able to be vaccinated and with only 30% of our kids between 12 and 17 fully vaccinated now, more cases in this country and a real effort to try and make sure that our kids can safely get back to full in-person learning in the fall, we’re recommending that everybody wear masks right now.

Some people have asked me, why change math guidance to protect people who decide not to get vaccinated, even though they can. Can you say something about the role, the unvaccinated person who gets infected, even if they have mild or no illness, can play in the development of the next variant of concern, with that variant potentially going on to have a higher chance of potentially infecting those of us who are vaccinated.

The first thing I think we all need to acknowledge is there are some people who are not able to be fully vaccinated, like children, and some people who are not able to be fully protected even though they are vaccinated like immuno-compromised people.

So part of the reason for this guidance is to make sure that we can protect those and that people who are seeing immuno-compromised people, for example, know how to protect them, even though they themselves may be fully vaccinated.

But your point is well taken about those who have made the choice to not get vaccinated and the amount of virus that is circulating in this country right now. So for the amount of viruses circulating in this country, largely among unvaccinated people, the largest concern that I think we in public health and science are worried about is that virus and the potential mutations away we are from a very transmissible virus that has the potential to evade our vaccine, in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and deaths.

Right now, fortunately, we are not there. These vaccines operate really well in protecting us about severe forms of severe disease and deaths. But the big concern is that the next variant that might emerge, just a few mutations potentially away, could potentially invade our vaccine.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the data showing that some vaccinated individuals have similar viral loads to unvaccinated. And if you could talk about whether the CDC is looking at expanding the mask guidance to maybe require masking indoors, in public spaces, in all circumstances or other being indoors in public spaces, in all circumstances or other public health measures, given the spread of Delta?

So, as I mentioned, in these outbreak investigations, we are able to stratify the clusters that we are seeing. Unfortunately, because we have so much disease right now, some of these clusters are large, and we’re able to stratify them by a smaller proportion that is vaccinated and breakthrough infections, and a larger proportion that is unvaccinated. And so, when we look at their Ct values, or otherwise their viral load, and what we’re seeing is that they’re actually quite similar. That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, where they are, have the potential to [inaudible] transmit with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person. So the burden is less because there are fewer of them people-wise, but the amount of virus is the thing between those two strata.

In terms of otherwise updating our guidance, we’re not looking at that right now. What I will say is if you are in a place that doesn’t have very much disease out there, obviously I should mention, it’s always a personal choice as to whether someone chooses to wear a mask or not, and that should not something that is stigmatized or otherwise. But in terms of our guidance, if you have a vaccine that is 90 to 95% effective and you don’t have very much disease around, the chance of you getting infected should you meet somebody, is already pretty low, but then the chance that you’re going to meet somebody who is infected is also pretty low. So the potential for this to be a problem is much, much lower in areas with low amounts of disease, which is why we really need to work hard to get these areas in the country that have substantial and high amounts of the transmission right now, down to lower amounts of transmission, to protect the unvaccinated and get them vaccinated, and also to protect the vaccinated.

Dr. Walensky, can you tell me whether or not you are intending to start collecting and releasing data on the breakthrough cases? I mean, a while back, the CDC announced that they were not going to be reporting on this data, but it looks like the Delta VarianT is changing the equation in a lot of ways. When will we start to see those data? 

I would like to correct a misperception that is out there. The first thing I want to say is we are collecting passive reporting data on people who are hospitalized and who have died, but we recognize that epidemiologically, that is not going to give us the best information with regard to rates of breakthrough infection because passive data collection is generally underreported. In order to counter that. We have been collecting data through more than 20 cohorts of people. These include tens of thousands of people who we are following nationwide, and they include healthcare workers, essential workers, long-term care facilities, and in some of these cohorts, we’re collecting PCR data from every person in them weekly. So we are absolutely studying and evaluating breakthrough infections in many different sites, many different people across the country. We are looking at those data on a weekly to bi-weekly basis, and we will be reporting on those soon.

Can you just sort of define how you assess substantial and high transmission? If someone reading, one of our stories wants to know if this applies to them, how are they supposed to know what their community level of transmission is, and in turn when they should be wearing a mask, and then maybe if rates fall, when they can kind put them back away?

So the CDC COVID Data Tracker tracks the amount of community transmission by county and is updated daily. It’s color-coded, so substantial is orange and high is red, and in fact, most departments of public health and local jurisdictions track this pretty carefully as well. We can get you the link, of course, to find the data. But the important thing I want to continue is what it means. Substantial transmission in areas that have 50 to 100 cases per a hundred thousand over a seven-day period, and substantial are places that have more than a hundred cases in a seven-day period per hundred thousand. So I do want to sort of articulate that we have places in counties and states here that are now reporting over 300 cases per hundred thousand over a seven-day period, so really an extraordinary amount of viral transmission, which is what we’re concerned about.

I am wondering if given what you now know about the Delta variant and the transmissibility if the CDC is giving any thought to recommending vaccine mandates, for instance, of the federal workforce or the military, which President Biden could impose, or mandates perhaps for schools or employers?

So that is not something that the CDC has jurisdiction over. We certainly will be technical advisors to the government as they’re making these decisions. What I will say is that we are recommending that communities look to their community levels and really look to what would motivate their communities to help get vaccinated. If businesses believe that it would be a mandate, then we encourage them to do so. We’re encouraging really any activities that would motivate further vaccination. Not all communities are going to be responsive to a mandate, in the same way, so we’re really encouraging communities to look to their own areas and see what would be most motivational to get vaccinated.

High caliber masks, because in areas where there are low vaccination rates, one would expect that mask adoption would also be low. In order to sort of maximum personal protection, are you emphasizing N95 masks over cloth and surgical? 

Right now, often surgical.

Right now, we’re really motivated to get people masked to prevent transmission. If people have a personal choice as to whether they have access to and want to wear an N95, we leave that to their personal decision, the CDC does have guidance as to what are the best masks to wear, a multi-layer cloth mask, a surgical mask. So we’re leaving that to the CDC guidance on masking

Doctor, given the definitions that you’ve had here of the high and substantial transmission, and I understand that you’re doing it county by county, will you consider much of the state of Missouri now as in high or substantial transmission and subject to the recommendations that the CDC is making this afternoon? And are some of the clusters that you are investigating also in the state of Missouri?

The state of Missouri, I’m actually just even looking, but my understanding is the state of Missouri is largely classified as higher substantial. It’s not entirely, but it’s largely classified as substantial or high with a few exceptions in the county. And we are collaborating with the state when they ask for our assistance related to outbreak investigation

One of the big outstanding questions here is how much compliance we might expect to get in terms of folks masking up indoors. Have you done any type of modeling work to get a sense of if you get certain percent compliance, whether that would be sufficient in helping to drive down cases at this time?

We work together. We worked together with numerous modeling groups. I don’t specifically know which ones might have examined that. So I think I should probably refrain from answering that right now, but I suspect that one of the modeling groups has examined the question. I really do believe that masking right now, especially for those unvaccinated, is a temporary measure. What we really need to do to drive down these transmissions in areas of high transmission is to get more and more people vaccinated and in the meantime to use masks.

I just have one sort of closing remark.

So I just want to indicate that this is not a decision that we or CDC has made lightly. This weighs heavily on me. I know at 18 months through this pandemic, not only are people tired, they’re frustrated. We have mental health challenges in this country. We have a lot of continued sickness and death in this country. Our health systems are, in some places, being overrun for what is preventable. And I know in the context of all of that, it is not a welcomed piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people’s lives who have already been vaccinated.

So this new data weighs heavily on me. This new guidance weighs heavily on me, and I just wanted to convey that this was not a decision that was taken lightly. Public health experts, scientific experts, medical experts, when we have shown them these data have universally said that this required action. I thought and I felt that when I saw the data myself. So I just wanted to perhaps close and say that this was not something that we took lightly and something that I know weighs heavily with me and with all of America.


Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH

Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, is the 19th Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the ninth Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. She is an influential scholar whose pioneering research has helped advance the national and global response to HIV/AIDS. Dr. Walensky is also a well-respected expert on the value of testing and treatment of deadly viruses.

Dr. Walensky served as Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital from 2017-2020 and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School from 2012-2020. She served on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic and conducted research on vaccine delivery and strategies to reach underserved communities.

Dr. Walensky is recognized internationally for her work to improve HIV screening and care in South Africa and is nationally recognized for motivating health policy and informing clinical trial design and evaluation in a variety of settings.

She is a past Chair of the Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council at the National Institutes of Health, Chair-elect of the HIV Medical Association, and previously served as an advisor to both the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Originally from Maryland, Dr. Walensky received her Bachelor of Arts from Washington University in St. Louis, her Doctor of Medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and her Masters in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

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Judge dismisses legal challenge seeking to block DOE’s newly implemented “Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools”

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Attorney General Mark R. Herring has successfully defended the Department of Education’s “Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools” in court against legal attacks from conservative activists. Earlier this spring, two lawsuits were filed, that were eventually consolidated into one lawsuit, seeking to block the newly implemented policy. Judge J. Frederick Watson in Lynchburg Circuit Court dismissed each of the consolidated cases, following arguments from Attorney General Herring’s Office.

“Every single child who goes to school in the Commonwealth deserves a positive, safe, nurturing learning environment, without the fear of discrimination or harassment simply because of who they are,” said Attorney General Herring. “We must do all we can to ensure that transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming students feel supported and protected, and this model policy gives school divisions the roadmap to doing just that in their schools. I am incredibly proud of the work my team did defending Virginia’s model policy for transgender students, and I hope that today’s win shows young people all over the Commonwealth that they will be supported here.”

Attorney General Herring has made protecting and defending members of Virginia’s LGBTQ community a top priority during his time in office. Earlier this month, he again successfully defended the Virginia Values Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that protects LGBTQ Virginians and others from discrimination, against another legal attack by conservative activists. He created the Office of Civil Rights in order to expand, enhance, and centralize his ongoing work to protect Virginians from discrimination and to secure and expand the rights of all Virginians, including combating LGBTQ and gender-based discrimination.

Attorney General Herring also successfully argued that Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional and should be struck down. Additionally, he championed legislation that updated Virginia’s definition of a hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability, and he has supported numerous federal laws and regulations that put more protections in place for LGBTQ Americans.


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Virginia Diner will invest over $4.5 million to grow manufacturing and distribution operation

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Governor Ralph Northam announced on July 27, 2021, that Virginia Diner will invest over $4.5 million to nearly double the production of its iconic gourmet peanuts. Founded in 1929, Virginia Diner is known for its landmark restaurant on Route 460 in Wakefield and line of gourmet seasoned peanuts, snack mixes, peanut brittle, and other candies. The company currently sources Virginia-variety peanuts exclusively from Florida and as part of this expansion, will create 16 new jobs and commit to sourcing 100 percent of its peanut purchases from the Commonwealth, leading to the purchase of nearly four million pounds of peanuts from Virginia shellers over the next four years. Governor Northam celebrated the announcement with company leaders and local economic development officials during a visit to the restaurant.

“Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, and that means it is vital to our economy and the well-being of our residents,” said Governor Northam. “Virginia Diner celebrates all the culinary traditions of the Southeastern corner of our Commonwealth, most notably, Virginia peanuts. This expansion will not only bring new jobs and investment to Sussex County, but will create important new markets for Virginia peanuts and help secure the future of one of our most iconic businesses.”

Opened in 1929 in a refurbished railroad dining car, Virginia Diner soon became famous for serving patrons not the traditional after-dinner mints, but local peanuts fresh-roasted in the diner’s kitchen. By the late 1940s, customer demand for their famous peanuts led to the creation of a small mail-order business. Today, Virginia Diner’s gourmet peanut business accounts for more than 80 percent of the company’s annual sales, with half their sales going through major retailers with the remainder direct to customers through the company’s mail-order catalogs and website.

“Peanuts have been an iconic part of the Commonwealth’s agricultural history since we became the first state in the country to begin commercial peanut production nearly 200 years ago,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “Thanks to companies like Virginia Diner, the Commonwealth’s reputation as a producer of the world’s best peanuts continues to thrive. I’m thrilled that we could partner with Sussex County through the Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund to support this cornerstone of Virginia agriculture.”


“Virginia Diner has been an icon throughout Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region for 92 years in large part due to the support of our local Wakefield community, regular customers throughout Sussex and surrounding counties, and families who have been visiting for several generations,” said Virginia Diner President and COO Andrew Whisler. “We are thankful for the support of the Commonwealth of Virginia and Sussex County as we embark on a multi-year, multi-phase investment to bring more jobs, revenue, and agricultural purchases to the region.”

The planned expansion is expected to occur in two phases over the next four years. The first phase includes the construction of a 22,000 square-foot addition to the existing building for warehousing, distribution, and office space. This new facility will also enable the company to store all of its products on-site. The second phase of the project is an expansion of Virginia Diner’s manufacturing facility, which will increase the company’s production capacity, improve operational efficiencies, and decrease costs, thereby improving product margins. Virginia Diner roasts an average of 4,200 pounds of peanuts per day, scaling up to more than 7,000 pounds per day during the peak holiday season.

“Virginia Diner’s commitment to sourcing their peanuts from the Commonwealth is something to celebrate, not just for our state’s progressive economy but for Sussex County as a whole,” said Senator Louise Lucas. “A few weeks ago, Virginia was named the nation’s top state for business by CNBC. Today, we are proud to continue to uphold that standard by celebrating this economic development announcement in Sussex County, one of the rural parts of my district.”

“Virginia Diner is known for its delicious peanut products all over the country,” said Delegate Roslyn Tyler. “As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I am pleased to work with Governor Northam, Secretary Ring, and state agencies to fund small businesses and create job opportunities that are vital to the economy of rural communities like Sussex County. We must continue to move Virginia forward, and we can’t turn back.”

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services worked with Sussex County and the Sussex County Economic Development Authority to secure this project for the Commonwealth. Governor Northam approved a $100,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, which Sussex County will match through a rebate of taxes and infrastructure improvements that will directly benefit Virginia Diner as well as two adjacent agriculture-related businesses.

“For nearly 100 years, Virginia Diner has been a fixture of Sussex County’s business community and this expansion project is evidence of their continued long-term commitment to our county,” said Sussex County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Seward. “In addition, this project will further promote our strong agricultural heritage and provide opportunities for our peanut growers. We appreciate the support of the state and look forward to working with Virginia Diner on this expansion.”

“We are delighted that Virginia Diner has made the decision to continue to grow and prosper in the Gateway Region,” said Keith Boswell, President, and CEO of Virginia’s Gateway Region Economic Development Organization. “We look forward to continuing our strong partnership with the company and celebrating this next chapter of their growth for Sussex County.

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$935.6 million in American Rescue Plan funding will replenish Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, accelerate critical upgrades to Virginia Unemployment Commission

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On July 27, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam announced that the Commonwealth will commit $935.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to replenish the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and accelerate critical upgrades to the Virginia Employment Commission. The Governor’s plan will put $862 million back into Virginia’s unemployment insurance trust fund, preventing tax increases on businesses and ensuring that employers are not penalized for layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia will also invest $73.6 million to fast-track ongoing modernization efforts at the Virginia Employment Commission, including $37.4 million to boost call center capacity, $29.8 million to upgrade technology, nearly $4.6 million to hire additional adjudication officers and $1.8 million for personnel support.

“Shoring up the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance trust fund is a smart investment that will prevent Virginia businesses from paying higher taxes and allow our economy to continue surging,” said Governor Northam. “These actions will also propel our modernization efforts forward so the Virginia Employment Commission can better serve those in need of assistance throughout our pandemic recovery and into the future. Together with the General Assembly, we are taking important steps to ensure Virginia remains a place where businesses, workers, and families can all thrive.”

Virginia, like all other states, pays unemployment benefits from its Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which is financed through payroll taxes paid by employers. When higher numbers of workers are laid off and apply for unemployment insurance, taxes on businesses increase based on a formula to help replenish the trust fund. Because these taxes are based, in part, on a company’s history of laying off or reducing staff, the businesses most impacted by pandemic-related workforce reductions face the most significant increases in future unemployment insurance taxes.

“The Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system has served as a critical lifeline to thousands of out-of-work Virginians over the last year,” said Secretary of Labor Megan Healy. “This continued investment will ensure the long-term viability of the trust fund and allow Virginia businesses to put their limited resources towards hiring workers rather than paying taxes.”


These investments build on the Northam Administration’s ongoing work to implement long-overdue improvements to Virginia’s unemployment insurance system and address rising unemployment tax rates resulting from the pandemic. Governor Northam signed Executive Order Seventy-Four in December 2020, which held businesses harmless for lay-offs that occurred during the pandemic and protected Virginia businesses from having to pay an additional $200 million to restore the depleted Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

Governor Northam and the General Assembly have also worked together to support out-of-work Virginians in need of assistance and speed up the processing of unemployment claims. The special session budget included $210 million to backfill the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, and the 2021 budget dedicated an additional $15 million to increase call center staffing levels and support long-overdue IT system upgrades at the Virginia Employment Commission.

“In May, we made a commitment to prioritize the use of American Rescue Plan funding to support workers and small businesses alike,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “This plan follows through on that promise by keeping relief funds available for Virginians while simultaneously removing the added burden on businesses, helping them get back on their feet.”

“While Virginia’s unemployment rate has now fallen to half of what it was last summer, the past year’s claims depleted the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw. “Replenishing the trust will help small business and is a necessary and fiscally responsible step forward as we rebuild and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Despite being underfunded for decades, the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system successfully distributed $12.9 billion in benefits to more than 1.3 million eligible Virginians between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and May 2021. Approximately 85 percent of Virginia applicants receive benefits within 21 days of filing an initial claim, making Virginia sixth in the nation—and first in the Mid-Atlantic region—for delivering unemployment insurance to eligible individuals.

In May 2021, Governor Northam issued Executive Directive Sixteen, which directed the Virginia Employment Commission to invest $20 million to add 300 new adjudication staffers, make immediate technology upgrades, and complete a full modernization of the Commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system by October 1, 2021.

“These investments to modernize the Virginia Employment Commission are continued steps towards addressing federal underinvestment in the system,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Joint Commission on Unemployment Compensation. “We must continue this momentum and work to ensure the Commonwealth has the strongest unemployment insurance system in the nation.”

“I hear every day from Virginians who are struggling to get their benefits,” said Senator Adam Ebbin, Vice-Chair of the Joint Commission on Unemployment Compensation. “This funding to support additional adjudication officers, call centers, and IT modernization will help our system more efficiently and effectively provide unemployed Virginians with the support they deserve.”

Governor Northam and General Assembly leaders released a joint statement in May outlining shared priorities for allocating the $4.3 billion in federal funds available to the Commonwealth from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The Governor and state legislators previously announced plans to invest $353 million to boost recovery among Virginia’s small businesses and $700 million to expedite the deployment of last-mile broadband infrastructure to unserved areas and close the digital divide within by 2024.

On Monday, Governor Northam kicked off “Investment Week” by announcing that the Commonwealth intends to use $250 million in ARP funds to improve ventilation and air filtration in public schools. Earlier today, Governor Northam announced that Virginia will dedicate $411.5 million to make improvements to aging water systems and improve drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.

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$411.5 million investment in American Rescue Plan funds will improve aging water and sewer infrastructure, restore waterways

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On July 27, 2021, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Virginia plans to allocate $411.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding to reduce water pollution and increase access to clean water across the Commonwealth. The proposal will make substantial investments in aging water systems and improve drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.

The announcement is part of “Investment Week,” during which the Governor and legislative leaders will highlight proposals for distributing the $4.3 billion in ARP funding available to the Commonwealth in advance of the August 2nd special session.

“With this funding, we have a tremendous opportunity to rebuild our aging water systems and ensure every Virginia family has reliable access to safe, clean drinking water,” said Governor Northam. “In addition to modernizing water and sewer infrastructure across the Commonwealth, these investments will go a long way towards restoring the health of our waterways and reducing pollution in our communities.”

The proposal includes $186.5 million for wastewater treatment and nutrient removal, $125 million for combined sewer overflow projects in Richmond, Alexandria, and Lynchburg, and $100 million to assist water systems in small and disadvantaged communities. These proposed investments supplement more than $300 million in ARP funding that the Commonwealth sent to towns in June and $2.3 billion made available to Virginia’s 133 counties and cities directly from the federal government to meet local response and recovery needs, which include improving access to clean drinking water and to supporting vital wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.


“Protecting the environment, and particularly providing for sanitary disposal of wastewater, is critical to public health and the economy,” said Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “These investments will put us even closer to restoring the Chesapeake Bay, and will clean up streams and improve septic and sewer systems across the Commonwealth.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of ensuring all Virginians have access to the basic necessities—safe housing, quality health care, food security, and reliable utilities,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, MD, MHCM. “Investing in our water systems will help advance health equity and ensure a robust economic recovery.”

Clean water supports overall public health by preventing water-related ailments, increasing sanitation, and enabling food production. Affordable and reliable access to clean water is also important for driving economic activity across a broad range of industries, from tourism and outdoor recreation to agriculture and manufacturing.

“Maintaining wastewater infrastructure is an essential function of government,” said Senator Mamie Locke. “I am grateful to my colleagues in the General Assembly and to Governor Northam for investing in this issue that has gone unaddressed for far too long.”

“This is a public health issue, an economic issue, and an equity issue,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “This investment means more Virginians can focus on leading healthy lives and taking pride in their communities, not worrying about high utility bills.”

“As someone who values our natural ecosystems, I am excited to see the tremendous benefits this will bring to improving the health of watersheds across the Commonwealth,” said Senator David Marsden. “It is critical to use these federal funds to make permanent improvements in our fight for clean water.”

“Every Virginian deserves access to clean water, and we know that a healthy environment is the backbone of a strong economy,” said Delegate David Bulova. “I look forward to continuing to work with the Administration and my fellow legislators to make Virginia the healthiest state in the nation.”

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On anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act, Herring urges Congress to pass All Stations Accessibility Program Act of 2021

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To mark the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Attorney General Herring has joined a coalition of 18 attorneys general in urging Congress to pass legislation that will allow people with disabilities to have equal access to public transportation. The All Stations Accessibility Program Act of 2021 (ASAP) will support state and local government efforts to provide accessible public transportation to people with disabilities.

The ASAP Act would establish a federal grant program to support local transit and commuter rail authorities to upgrade existing stations to meet or exceed the ADA’s accessibility standards. In a letter to congressional leadership, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues argue that the legislation is essential to addressing barriers to transportation, which also serve as barriers preventing people with disabilities from fully participating in society.

“Public transportation doesn’t just mean getting from one place to another, but it also represents independence or increased employment or housing opportunities, and Virginians with disabilities deserve the same access as other individuals,” said Attorney General Herring. “On this anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am calling on Congress to pass the ASAP Act, because too many Americans with disabilities still face barriers that keep them from fully and actively participating in their communities – and that must change.”

The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law July 26, 1990, and was designed to guarantee people with disabilities equal opportunities to be active participants in society. Considered by many to be the most sweeping civil rights legislation since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA resulted from tireless advocacy by disabled activists who demanded civil rights for people with disabilities. In passing the ADA, Congress acknowledged the historic isolation and segregation of people with disabilities, as well as the discrimination they experience in critical areas such as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, recreation, voting, and more.



In their letter to congressional leadership, Attorney General Herring and his colleagues point out that notwithstanding the progress enshrined in the ADA, more work is needed to ensure people with disabilities can actively participate in their communities. Despite the ADA became law more than 30 years ago, studies show that people with disabilities continue to face challenges in obtaining employment and housing. A 2020 report issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 17.9% of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 61.8% of people without disabilities. In their letter to Congress, the coalition argues that access to transportation is critical to addressing disparities in housing and employment and allowing people with disabilities to participate equally in society.

The Federal Transit Administration has reported that nearly 20% of all public transit stations were not ADA accessible in 2019. The ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design set minimum standards for what makes a facility accessible to people with disabilities. However, the ADA allows public entities to defer making architectural changes to facilities constructed prior to the ADA’s enactment when changes would pose an undue financial burden. As a result, the coalition point out, state and local governments’ fiscal constraints have frequently prevented them from making all legacy transportation systems fully accessible.

The ASAP Act will establish a grant program dedicated to assisting state and local governments in upgrading legacy rail stations, or those that were in operation before the ADA’s effective date. The program would appropriate $10 billion over 10 years, and each grant will fund 90% of a project’s net cost. Recipients can use grant funding to develop plans for projects aimed at accommodating individuals with a wide range of disabilities, including physical, sensory, and developmental disabilities. Each project plan must also ensure equitable service to all riders regardless of income, age, race, or ability.

Joining Attorney General Herring in calling upon Congress to pass the ASAP Act are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington.

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