Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

Last week, we lost a true statesman with the passing of the Honorable John Warner. Senator Warner was a bipartisan legislator always putting country before self. His long life included serving in the Navy, as Secretary of the Navy, and five terms in the US Senate where he also chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Rules Committee. Virginia was well represented by John Warner, a true moderate who had friends on both sides of the aisle.

Memorial Day marked the unofficial start of summer. Due to an aggressive vaccination plan, available supply, and public access, Virginia is well on its way to resuming life as we once knew it. Accordingly, the CDC has amended guidelines which include relaxing the mask mandate for vaccinated people both indoors and outside. Moving toward herd immunity has been a game changer in the battle to curb the pandemic.

Work from home has made its mark on our economy. From government workers, to the legal system, to academia, we’ve learned to carry on and be productive. The hardest hit industries have been in sectors such as personal services, food service, hospitality, and gig workers.

Build Back Better is now the battle cry for reinvigorating the economic recovery. The model calls for investing in America’s workers as well as long overdue infrastructure renewal. It’s time to get back to work as new jobs become available. Unemployment is dropping, child care support is available, and our kids are moving toward being back in their classrooms. Bottom line: people are realizing it’s safe to get back to their traditional lives and work again.

Many companies are in the process of reviewing how they will proceed with target dates as early as mid-June for physical offices to reopen. Some will put together hybrid plans and/or wait until September when children will be back in school. Nonetheless, we are facing another crisis – a workforce shortage. This is the anchor weighing down the recovery.

The hospitality and travel industry were hit hard during the pandemic. Many restaurants could not weather the storm, Hotel vacancies have been at an all-time high. Business travel plays a big role in our region. Airlines, hotels, and restaurants will be able to rehire employees to meet the growing demand that comes with reopening physical offices, particularly in Tysons Corner and other commercial property within the 35th Senate District.

After a tumultuous year and a half, the VEC is still under scrutiny and has been heavily criticized for its outstanding claim resolution backlog. Prior to the pandemic shutdown, Virginia was at an impressive low unemployment rate. There was no critical need to build and/or retain a large processing staff in the VEC. With the onset of the pandemic, over the course of a few months, more than one million claims were filed. Compound this with VEC internal outbreaks of Covid (including two staff deaths) and the perfect storm happened.

Virginia has had one of the lowest unemployment insurance costs as it is tied to the federal government and required to follow their guidelines. It may not come as a surprise, but the system tends to favor the employer. A legal settlement has been reached which calls for VEC to step up its game just as we attempt to reboot and get people back into their jobs. The top lines include a $20 million investment by the Commonwealth in VEC adding 300 new staffers, put into service tech upgrades, and completing a modernization of the commonwealth’s unemployment insurance system by later this year.

The ideological divide on gun ownership continues to widen both in Virginia and the nation. We have made great policy strides intended to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But somehow across this country we hear about mass shootings far too regularly. June is Gun Violence Prevention Month. This week (June 4 – 6) please wear orange in solidarity of this important issue.

The redistricting commission has been meeting to undertake the decennial task of drawing legislative districts. Covid-19 slowed down the census results. Those numbers serve as the foundation for the new maps. As a result, the House of Delegates will likely run in three years in a row. The Senate is on the ballot in November 2023.