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Virginia Senators Spike Paid Quarantine Leave

Virginia's Capitol
Virginia's Capitol. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

All but one Democrat joined Senate Republicans to kill legislation intended to provide paid quarantine leave to some workers on Wednesday.

A Senate committee voted 14 to 1 to table the bill with little debate. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) cast the lone “yes” vote.

The vote spells the end of the road for sick and quarantine leave legislation this year that came close to passing in March but that has struggled to clear Virginia’s Senate. That chamber tabled a similar bill last month over concerns related to costs to businesses. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) made that case again on Wednesday.

"We have no business placing additional stress on our businesses at this period of time," Norment said.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William), maintained the bill would have saved lives by keeping sick workers off, particularly in hard-hit Black and LatinX communities. Nearly 2,900 people in Virginia have died from COVID-19 through Wednesday.

Guzman, who is also exploring a run for lieutenant governor, expressed frustration with Senate Democrats, saying that she’d worked with them and with the business community to address concerns about cost and impact.

“They always hear the conversation about businesses,” Guzman said in an interview. “But the reality has been that our base is the working class and they are paying close attention.”

The legislation was significantly altered from a more sweeping sick leave bill Guzman hoped to pass at the start of the special session. The amended bill would have required employers with more than 25 workers to provide 80 hours of paid quarantine leave through the duration of Governor Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 state of emergency or July 1, 2021, whichever came first. Employees would have had to work at least 20 hours a week to be eligible for the leave.

Workers could have used the leave to treat their own case of COVID-19, that of a family member, or to help a family member whose presence in the community “may jeopardize the health of others because of his exposure to COVID-19,” regardless of whether the person contracted the virus.

Barring federal COVID-19 aid, state employees were exempted from the bill -- proof to some lawmakers and business groups that the General Assembly was passing expenses to businesses that it was unwilling to cover for its own employees. A related budget amendment proposed by Guzman would also have set aside a pool of funds to help smaller employers cover costs associated with providing leave, but business groups argued it was insufficient and created more red tape.

NFIB, a small business association, led opposition to the bill. NFIB’s State Director Nicole Riley argued that businesses needed flexibility to come up with their own leave policies.

“Each business is different, and they need to figure out their own best solution,” Riley said in a statement. “Tying their hands behind their back with another one-size-fits-all mandate would have made their economic recovery even more difficult.”

Guzman plans on reintroducing a paid sick leave bill in January for the fifth time since she took office in 2018.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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