It was a big year for gender justice advocates in Virginia’s General Assembly. At the start of session, we highlighted five issues to watch out for this year – and we had major wins in four out of five areas.
- Passing meaningful anti-discrimination protections. The new Virginia Values Act (SB868) is the first meaningful anti-discrimination law in Virginia, providing protections against discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, martial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or status as a veteran. As of July 1, Virginians will have new protections against discrimination in employment, public accommodations, credit and housing. For the first time, the Division of Human Rights in the Office of the Attorney General will have the power to enforce these protections.
- Providing pregnancy accommodations. We took a huge step toward ensuring no Virginian will be forced out of their job because they are pregnant. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (SB712/HB827) requires employers with five or more employees to provide reasonable pregnancy accommodations and prohibits discrimination because a worker is pregnant or lactating, starting July 1. This law should make it easier for workers and employers to know what rights pregnant workers have.
- Protecting abortion rights. Virginia repealed some of its burdensome regulations that made it harder to get an abortion (SB733/HB980). After July 1, people seeking an abortion will no longer need to undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound and wait 24 hours before an abortion. Abortion providers will no longer be subject to unnecessary, burdensome regulations that have no positive impact on a patient’s health. This law is an important first step toward making abortion access a reality for all Virginians.
- Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. Last but not least, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (SJ 1/HJ 1), pushing the U.S. over the required three-fourths threshold for approving an amendment to the Constitution. The ERA establishes sex equality and could provide a new basis to pass federal laws addressing domestic and sexual violence, pregnancy discrimination and reproductive freedom.
Sadly, lawmakers didn’t pass all of the reforms we called for this year. Some issues to watch out for next year include:
- Reforming the criminal legal system. We called on lawmakers to raise the felony larceny threshold to $1,500 and to eliminate the “three strikes” felony larceny threshold. They only raised the threshold to $1,000 and failed to reform the “three strikes” law. We know women are twice as likely as men to report economic need as a motivation for their crimes, and these reforms would reduce the harsh consequences for these types of crimes that disproportionately affect women.
- Strengthening our anti-discrimination laws. Virginia’s new human rights laws are a huge victory, but they’re not perfect. The employment protections in the Virginia Values Act only apply to workers at big employers with 15 or more employees for most types of discrimination, or more than 5 for termination. Workers at small employers also deserve protection from all types of discrimination. We need to make sure that these protections are accessible to workers and that the process for obtaining relief is clear.
While significant progress was made this session toward gender equity, we still have work to do. Women are disproportionately impacted by harsh sentencing for economic crimes and protected classes of workers are not given enough protections in the workplace. We will continue to push for reforms in the courts and in the legislature until people of all genders have equal rights. If you believe you’ve been discriminated against in violation of Virginia’s human rights laws, please let us know by filling out our online intake form.