By Daniel Williams, University of Richmond Student and Bonner Scholar —

With spirits raised following Mayor Allison Silberberg’s inspirational remarks at their first meeting, the Alexandria Living Wage Committee in partnership with Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (VICPP) and Virginia Theological Seminary, set out to develop a Living Wage Certification Program in the Summer of 2017.

Their goal was simple – launch a program that would recognize employers already paying a “living wage” and encourage others to follow their example. The program builds customer loyalty and employee retention.

The program recognizes that the current Virginia minimum wage ($7.25) is woefully inadequate for employees working in the city of Alexandria. The Committee believes that paying a living wage, which enables local employees to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, is a moral imperative. Since raising the minimum wage in individual cities is not possible under Virginia law, developing a Living Wage Certification Program was the next best alternative.

One year later, the Committee launched the Alexandria Living Wage Certification Program, the second of its kind in Virginia.  Ryan Touhill, chief of staff of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and a member of the Alexandria Living Wage Committee, emphasized the commitment of the volunteers, “We had a really great dedicated group, but it takes a lot of work.  We have thousands of businesses in Alexandria, everything from small retail shops to large corporations. Other cities that have done this have had organized groups, whether that’s the government or the Chamber of Commerce.  We were a smaller group of volunteers and that was a bigger challenge.”

Stephanie Niedringhaus, another Committee member, stresses the importance of paying people a living wage in Alexandria, “Northern Virginia is a very expensive place to live. For anyone working at a minimum wage level, it is extremely difficult to provide for the needs of a family.”

Touhill fears that the high cost of living in Northern Virginia will ultimately drive quality workers to seek jobs with higher salaries in Washington, DC and Maryland. He believes that as more employers pay a living wage in Northern Virginia, local businesses will thrive in a “vibrant, robust and diverse economy,” and attract more workers.

The three earliest business applicants included Business Management Associates owned by LaJuanna Russell. (see photo) She launched her firm in 2005 and has always advocated raising the minimum wage.  When she heard about the program, she seized the opportunity to become certified and make a positive impact on her community.  One of the workers who has been positively impacted by the program is Russell’s 95-year-old grandmother, Lois Brooks.

Brooks visited Russell at work following the death of her only son and began doing odd jobs around the office.  After showing up consistently, helping with secretarial tasks, and even taking a desk for herself, she asked, “When is LaJuanna going to start paying me to come in here?”

“From that moment on she was on payroll!” Russell enthusiastically recalls, “but even at 95 they are still taking taxes, so the living wage definitely helps her maintain a nice way of living.”

Russell shares her personal stories about the successes of the Living Wage Program in hopes that other local businesses will become more ethically minded. “I would love to see more of the business decision being that we want to support our community, this is why we are in the community and why we started a business in the community,” Russell says.

Today the Alexandria Living Wage Committee continues to reach out to enroll local businesses and share the benefits and successes of its living wage certification.  “We targeted getting to 50 to 100 businesses in the next year,” Touhill says.

When asked what she would like to see going forward, Niedringhaus is clear, “I’d like to have it spread from community to community until the General Assembly can’t ignore it!”

If you own a business in Richmond or Alexandria that would like to become Living Wage Certified, visit the VICPP website