RICHMOND, Va. — Workers and advocates are urging Gov. Ralph Northam to sign a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 at the start of next year. The General Assembly will reconvene on April 22, and lawmakers will reevaluate recently passed legislation as the state’s economy takes a blow and unemployment climbs during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Northam and state leaders anticipate the state’s economy will suffer a major hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Northam didn’t respond directly to whether he is considering delaying the increase in the minimum wage when asked at a recent press conference.
“There are a number of pieces of legislation that we are looking at regarding our business environment, and I haven’t made any definite decisions, but we are talking to the patrons of those pieces of legislation,” Northam said. The governor said he will “make a decision in the best interest of Virginia and the best interest of our economy.”
Workers on the front lines of essential businesses continue to serve the public during the COVID-19 outbreak, including many workers who earn minimum wage–currently $7.25 in Virginia.
Employees at a Virginia Kroger grocery store and Amazon distribution center recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Many essential workers have asked for an increase in pay to reflect the increased need for their services and the elevated risks they take while working.
Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, an advocacy organization, said that raising the minimum wage is necessary to allow these workers to raise their families with dignity.
“That’s especially true now when grocery store workers, delivery drivers, home health aides and so many more are going to work for low wages and putting themselves at risk of getting sick so that we can stay home and healthy,” Scholl said in a press release.
The group is asking Northam to sign House Bill 395 into law without amendments or delays that would water down the bill. HB 395 would raise the minimum wage to $9.50 in 2021, $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. The minimum wage could go up to $15 by 2026 if approved by the General Assembly.
Some essential workers also argue that they are not being provided adequate protective gear and supplies to keep them safe from the coronavirus, another reason they are pushing for a guaranteed wage increase.
Lisa Harris works at Kroger in Mechanicsville and is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. She has been with Kroger for 13 years and said in a press conference organized by Progress Virginia that she would benefit directly from HB 395. She is urging Northam to sign the bill with no weakening amendments.
“I find it fascinating how fast grocery store workers like me have gone from being considered unskilled labor to being recognized as essential personnel,” Harris said.
She compared workers dealing directly with an increasingly infected public to being on the front lines like first responders and said: “it would be nice to be paid accordingly.”
Harris said Kroger is not observing the proper social distancing recommendation of 6 feet or providing workers with personal protective equipment. She said the staff is required to wipe down the self-checkout scanners and screens every half hour but argues that this is impossible with the influx of customers visiting the store. Harris said the staff is given Windex to clean equipment and not a proper disinfectant. The company has given full-time workers a $300 bonus and part-time workers a $150 pay boost, but that’s not enough money, Harris said.
“It means barely being able to support myself, it means making tough decisions about whether to pay a bill or skip a meal, it means calling on my family members to help me as I’m attempting to be a fully enfranchised 31-year old,” Harris said.
Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger, said the grocery chain provided all hourly workers with a $2 pay increase for hours worked March 29 through April 18. McGee also stated that all Kroger stores in the Richmond area have been provided with Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants to wipe down counters and cash registers. She said employees are required to wipe down surfaces frequently and extra hand sanitizer bottles have been provided at each checkout station.
“As far as PPE, we are encouraging our associates to wear protective masks and gloves, and we’re working hard to secure these resources for our associates,” McGee stated in an email. “Supply has started to arrive for our associates, and we anticipate all locations having personal protective equipment within the next several weeks.”
Kroger said on its website that they want healthcare workers to get a hold of protective gear before they can properly distribute it to their workers. For now, employees have limited access to such PPE and are encouraged to use their own.
Beginning April 7, Kroger will also start to limit the number of customers to 50% of the building code’s calculated capacity to allow for proper physical distancing in stores, the company announced this week.
Michael Cassidy, executive director of The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, said that the coronavirus is a reminder many essential workers are also minimum wage workers.
“These individuals are providing a vital service to us right now and they deserve more than $7.25 an hour,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy said if the minimum wage increase were to go into effect in January, it would help 46,000 healthcare workers, 100,00 retail workers and over 100,000 restaurant and service industry workers. He said this would allow people to buy more and contribute to businesses and the economy as a whole.
“That’s important because consumer spending is the foundation of our economy, it’s about 72% of Virginia’s gross domestic product,” Cassidy said.
Del. Danica Roem said in a tweet that she is extremely disappointed to see groups advocating for bills like HB 395 to be watered down or delayed.
“We’re $1.50/hr behind West Virginia right now,” Roem tweeted. “You don’t see an uprising of West Virginian business leaders demanding the government lower their minimum wage to match ours.”
Cassidy said history shows that increasing the minimum wage during a recession has been successful in bringing the economy back.
HB 395 is currently pending signature by Northam with a deadline of April 11.
By Ada Romano
Capital News Service
Bentonville teen dies off Chincoteague Bay after boat capsizes, boy, 17, missing
A Bentonville teen died, and another teen is missing after their Jon boat capsized it Saturday morning in the Chincoteague Bay, according to a media release from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The incident occurred around 9:20 a.m. near Curtis Merritt Harbor at the southern end of the island. A wave apparently hit the 16-foot boat, according to Marine Police and all four people went into the water.
Marine police stated that on board were two 17-year-olds, a 19-year-old and 18-year-old Corey Alles of Bentonville, VA.
A good Samaritan rescued two of the passengers near the boat, while the U.S. Coast Guard recovered the body of Alles. Officials say the 19-year-old man and one of the 17-year-olds were taken to the hospital with injuries considered non-life-threatening.
The release said that a 17-year-old male is still missing, and marine police will continue their search for him in the morning.
The U.S. Coast Guard, Virginia Marine Police, Virginia State Police, Maryland State Police, and the Chincoteague Police Department are all jointly
conducting the investigation. The families and the next of kin have been notified.
Officials declined to comment if the missing teen was from the Front Royal/Warren County area. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Valley Health distributes COVID test kits to community partners in region
At a time of high community COVID-19 positivity, Valley Health is distributing more than 150,000 free COVID-19 test kits throughout its rural service area, courtesy of the federal government.
The 2-test kits began arriving last week through a Biden Administration initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), in an effort to address the needs of residents in medically underserved areas.
Valley Health operates 19 federally-designated Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland to ease a shortage of primary medical care. HRSA’s program provides test kits through its network of RHCs to clinic staff, patients, and surrounding communities.
In addition to offering test kits to RHC staff and patients, Valley Health is distributing them to other physician practices and dozens of community agencies and organizations for use by their staff and those they serve. The distribution includes law enforcement, fire and rescue, free medical clinics, health departments, churches, and detention centers, shelters, and other congregate settings.
“We are entering our third year of caring for patients with COVID-19 and trying to protect the community from the ravages of this virus,” said Jeffrey Feit, MD, Valley Health Population and Community Health Officer. “The current Omicron variant is particularly contagious and there’s an overwhelming demand for testing. We are thrilled to be the conduit for these do-it-yourself test kits from the U.S. government to help our community take decisive steps if they are positive: isolate and protect others, and seek care if they have significant symptoms or underlying health conditions.”
Each test kit box contains two tests with clear instructions and the nasal swab and reagent needed to obtain fast, easy-to-understand results in 10 minutes. It is recommended that individuals use the second test over two to three days, with at least 24 hours and no more than 36 hours between tests.
Jason Craig, EdD, Valley Health Director of Community Health, has delivered thousands of test kits this week and learned first-hand how vital the rapid tests are for community agencies struggling to make safe decisions during the pandemic. The Salvation Army’s residential program manager, Deborah Moody, expressed her appreciation and offered insight on the value of the rapid tests to an organization trying to serve as many individuals as possible.
“We are currently running at half capacity because we were unable to know if someone was coming in with COVID and needed to isolate them for five days before releasing them into the population,” Moody explained. “This will allow us a shorter isolation time. Being the winter, it is crucial that we offer services to individuals experiencing homelessness. Thank you for helping to make that happen.”
Valley Health’s six hospitals are working on a plan to give kits to patients on discharge from the hospital, Craig added. ”We are putting them in the hands of many local family medicine and specialty care practices to help distribute throughout our communities. We want to be a good community partner and are eager to put the test kits we requested from HRSA to use for the health and safety of our friends and neighbors.” Valley Health is also asking employees to take two kits for their families and give two to a friend or neighbor “so that we can extend into the communities where our employees live,” Craig said.
Craig suggested that anyone unable to find a COVID-19 test kit through one of the practices or community organizations on Valley Health’s initial distribution effort should submit a request to receive by mail from www.covidtests.gov.
Update: RSW Regional Jail – Death in Custody
On December 12th, 2021, shortly after midnight, the R.S.W. Regional Jail contacted Warren County Emergency Medical Services and reported two male inmates unconscious and unresponsive.
EMS responded to the jail where Jonte Gerbell Smith (21) and a thirty-two-year-old male inmate were found in the condition reported. Narcan, which is an opioid antagonist, was administered to both inmates. The thirty-two-year-old male inmate responded successfully to the Narcan while Smith was unresponsive to its effects and required additional resuscitation efforts. Smith was transported to the Warren Memorial Hospital by paramedics where he was pronounced deceased by the attending physician. The other inmate was also transported to Warren Memorial Hospital, treated for an opioid overdose, and released back to R.S.W. staff to return to the jail.
Shortly after Smith was pronounced deceased, Warren County Sheriff’s Office was promptly contacted by R.S.W. Regional Jail staff to report the suspicious death of Smith, and the treatment of the second inmate for a suspected opioid overdose.
Investigator C. Powell of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office was assigned this case and is actively investigating both the death of Smith and the overdose of the other inmate. The R.S.W. Regional Jail is cooperating fully with this investigation.
The Warren County Sheriff’s Office would like to remind everyone that this, along with any suspicious death, is a very serious matter. The Sheriff’s Office appreciates any information the public might have that would assist in this investigation.
If anyone has information concerning this case, please contact Investigator Powell at the Warren County Sheriff’s Office by dialing (540) 635-7100, and choosing option #4.
Governor Youngkin announces updated guidelines for parents, educators, and preK-12 schools
On January 21, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced updated guidelines for parents, educators, and schools per Executive Order 2, which creates a parental opt-out from mask mandates at both public and private schools in the Commonwealth. The guidelines were developed by the Virginia Department of Health and the Department of Education.
“I have said all along that we are going to stand up for parents. Executive Order 2 is not about pro-masks versus anti-mask, it’s about empowering parents. I am confident that the Virginia Supreme Court will rule in the favor of parents, reaffirming the parental rights clearly laid out in the Virginia code § 1-240.1. In the meantime, I urge all parents to listen to their principal and trust the legal process. If you have any questions or concerns please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin.
The updated guidance is redesigned around Governor Youngkin’s key principles of parental rights, keeping kids in the classroom five days a week, and keeping kids safe and healthy. The update guidelines:
- Emphasizes alternative mitigation measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including vaccination, distancing, and outbreak awareness.
- Provides a clear decision tree for parents to review when trying to determine how to keep and return children to the classroom.
- Strongly encourages test-to-stay and other strategies to keep and return kids to the classroom as quickly as possible
- Gives schools practicable flexibility on contact tracing, distancing, and other strategies.
School masks opt-outs change; Board briefed on counseling programs
Students attending Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) now may be opted out of the division’s face mask mandate without citing a reason, in line with a new order issued by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
The governor’s January 15 Executive Order Number Two, which takes effect on Monday, January 24, permits parents to opt-out their children from the mask requirement without stating a reason, replacing the current state policy issued by Gov. Ralph Northam allowing parents to opt-out students from any mask requirement with a religious or medical exemption.
Additionally, in lieu of Youngkin’s new order, WCPS Director of Special Services Michael Hirsch and WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger provided members of the Warren County School Board, during its Wednesday, January 19 work session with the division’s updated 2021-2022 mitigation plan.
The plan remains in Phase II due to the County’s high coronavirus transmission rate and requires students, staff, and visitors to wear face coverings while inside school buildings, among other steps that may be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing.
Specifically, Ballenger discussed with board members his concerns related to staff and teacher shortages due to the ongoing pandemic. Attending Wednesday’s work session were School Board Chairwoman Kristen Pence, Vice Chairman Ralph Rinaldi, and School Board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins.
On Thursday, Ballenger issued a Parent Communication posted online — that will also be sent home to parents and guardians — stating that to adhere to Virginia law, WCPS must ensure that staff is available to provide daily in-person instruction.
“In order to meet the needs of our students, WCPS recognizes that current infection rates in Warren County could limit our ability to provide in-person instruction,” according to Ballenger’s communication. “Therefore, WCPS will remain in Phase II (masks are required for students unless they have an exemption form on file) of our mitigation plan for the next two weeks and will reevaluate phased status at the February 2, 2022, board meeting.”
Due to federal requirements, students and staff still must wear masks on school buses, Ballenger told board members. He added that WCPS will continue to check data on transmission rates to ensure the division is in the appropriate phase and plans to survey teachers and staff on whether masks should be required or encouraged for staff.
School counseling presentation
The School Board at its January 5 regular meeting voted to put on hold the Second Step Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) program curriculum in WCPS pending review after two members said parents should be made more aware of the program’s content. The vote was to temporarily suspend Second Step until parents, school administrators, teachers, the School Board, and community leaders have time to review the program’s content.
Following a review, board action can then be introduced to either continue the program, modify it, or cancel it.
During the board’s Wednesday work session, WCPS Curriculum Supervisor Heather Bragg and other WCPS staff provided such a review that included information on Second Step, which is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Committee for Children. WCPS purchased Second Step from the Committee for Children, which says on its website that the Second Step programs are research-based, teacher-informed, and classroom-tested to promote the social-emotional development, safety, and well-being of children from early learning through Grade 8.
Specifically, Bragg and other WCPS staff reviewed the Elementary and Middle School Standards for School Counseling Programs that included primary lessons and supplementary materials, including Second Step.
Overall, the K-12 programs, Bragg said, are designed to support the development of students’ academic, career, and personal/social development. Specifically, the academic component is designed to meet local, state, and national standards. The career development component addresses successful transitions for students from elementary to middle to high school and on to post-secondary education or the workforce, while the personal/social development component is designed to foster responsible citizens, said Bragg.
“To address the needs of all of our students, we offer teachers and staff the flexibility to choose the materials that best meet their needs,” she said, adding that each school has its own set of needs-based upon the students served by each school. Therefore, instruction is “unique and tailored” and uses a variety of materials implemented by counselors and classroom teachers, said Bragg.
Lisa Rudacille, principal at E. Wilson Morrison Elementary School, reviewed the counseling lessons provided to WCPS students, which cover topics such as working hard for success, teamwork, and building positive relationships with peers, among others. She said the school counselors’ lessons are reinforced daily by teachers since counselors provide just five counseling sessions in the elementary schools for an entire year.
Kristin Frankel, a school counselor at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School, provided information on the Second Step program, which has been available to WCPS elementary students since 2015 and is only used as a supplemental resource in the guidance classes. “So, it’s not fully implemented,” Frankel explained.
With the Second Step program comes some training videos that are provided for anyone who is going to use the curriculum, said Frankel. The program does not address all the standards needed to be covered in WCPS so counselors have to create additional lessons in order to meet those standards. Second Step is also not taught by the teachers at the elementary school level, she said.
Frankel explained that each kit for elementary students includes 20-25 lessons on grade levels K-5. The kits start on the skills for learning — for example, being respectful, focusing attention, listening, being assertive whenever asking for help — and then they move on to empathy to help students learn how to identify other people’s feelings, understand the perspectives of others, and show compassion.
Emotion management is another unit covered that includes work on calming anger, for instance. The final unit is problem-solving, Frankel said, and lessons vary depending on the grade level, such as dealing with problems on the playground or handling peer pressure.
“Since 2015, there have been no additional costs to use this program because it was a one-time cost to use this curriculum,” said Frankel.
Salins said there’s confusion about which version of Second Step is being used. She said the “most controversial” version is copyrighted 2020-2021. “Do our ES students not have access to this new material that parents are not allowed to view” because it is copyrighted material, asked Salins.
“That is correct,” answered Frankel, who said that WCPS students receive the 2015 Second Step Elementary Classroom Kits, “which are not the new digital program,” she said.
All counseling-related instruction information and materials are available online for the public and parents and guardians may schedule to meet with school counselors and principals to view any of the unit materials and lessons and have questions answered, Frankel added, and opt-out forms are also available.
Ballenger reiterated to School Board members that not every school in the division uses Second Step. For instance, Leslie Fox Keyser Elementary School doesn’t use it so parents would not receive information on accessing it, he said.
Maria Kisner, a counselor at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School, and Raychel DeArmitt, a counselor at E. Wilson Morrison, also presented information on the other supplemental materials they use in their lessons, as did counselors from WCPS middle schools.
Parents may at any time contact their child’s school principal or classroom teacher to discuss any concerns, questions, and thoughts, or to schedule a meeting they might have regarding a lesson, standard, practice, or any other school-related topic, said Ballenger.
Governor Youngkin announces Covid Action Plan
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – On January 20, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced his COVID Action Plan concurrent with Executive Order Number Eleven to provide hospitals, health systems, nursing facilities, and other healthcare providers the tools necessary to combat COVID-19. The plan also includes issuing clear testing guidelines to prioritize the use of COVID rapid tests and marshaling further resources to encourage Virginians to get the vaccine.
“While many families have experienced tragedy over the last two years, Virginians have truly embodied the spirit of Virginia as they came together to fight a common enemy—COVID-19,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “Today’s announcements are designed to give Virginians the tools and resources needed to make the best decisions for their families, strengthen our hospital systems, and ensure a strong recovery as we encounter new challenges associated with the pandemic that has become part of our everyday life.”
COVID-19 Vaccine Marshall Plan for Virginia
Governor Glenn Youngkin will devote additional resources and efforts to encouraging the nearly 1.6 million Virginians who are still unvaccinated to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Data shows that people vaccinated from COVID-19 are 4 times less likely to be hospitalized than those who are not. Governor Youngkin’s actions include:
- Directing the Secretary of Health to re-prioritize resources toward vaccine education and outreach, including expanded efforts in disproportionately unvaccinated communities.
- Plan to host and attend COVID-19 vaccine events across the Commonwealth.
- Working with Governors across the country to learn best practices on vaccine education.
- Empowering Virginia with choices, not mandates.
- Expanded Healthcare Flexibility & Support
Governor Glenn Youngkin signed Executive Order #11 to give healthcare providers flexibility and support to battle staffing shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and unconstitutional federal mandates on healthcare workers. Virginia’s hospitals and healthcare facilities are in crisis. Governor Youngkin’s actions include:
- Allowing hospitals and nursing homes to rapidly expand bed capacity by waiving regulations.
- Providing flexibility for qualified out-of-state nurses and healthcare professionals to practice in Virginia.
- Creating appropriate exemptions to the scope of practice requirements to allow healthcare providers to care for patients in this difficult time.
- Expanding the number of providers available to offer the Covid-19 vaccine.
- Expanding flexibility, overtime hours, and availably for personal care workers.
- Prioritized Testing Guidelines
Governor Glenn Youngkin will prioritize testing guidelines to mitigate supply-chain shortages for COVID-19 tests. The Governor will discourage mass testing for the purposes of pre-screening, discourage asymptomatic individuals from testing, and urge healthy individuals with mild symptoms to stay home and use discretion on testing. Governor Youngkin’s actions include:
- Expedite pending orders of rapid tests.
- Redeploy unused tests at state agencies and other non-essential facilities to schools, hospitals, and nursing facilities.
- Directing the State Health Commissioner to issue new guidelines that prioritize the use of rapid tests for key categories including Students potentially exposed to COVID-19 who need to test to remain in school. Essential healthcare professionals and other essential workers needing to be tested to return to work. Vulnerable citizens including those in nursing facilities and over the age of 65. Those with serious medical conditions and their caregivers. Those who need to be tested after consultation with a healthcare provider.