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VA House Approves Paid Sick Leave For Essential Workers

Woman speaking to man
Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) speaking with Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) during the 2020 General Assembly session. Guzman's bill to mandate paid sick leave for certain employees is now at the mercy of Saslaw's chamber. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Some essential workers in Virginia could soon get a week of paid sick leave each year.

The House of Delegates narrowly approved a mandated paid sick leave bill Thursday in a 54-46, with only one Democrat, Del. Nancy Guy (D-Virginia Beach), voting against the measure. Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) is sponsoring the bill, which mandates employers of essential workers provide one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours each year. In order to qualify, an employee must work an average of at least 20 hours per week. 

Guzman has made the case to her colleagues that Virginia workers should not have to choose between their health and a paycheck, especially during a pandemic.

“Our essential workers have kept this country running through the pandemic, yet many of them do not have access to a single paid sick day, even if they get COVID-19,” Guzman said. 

The bill mandating paid sick leave in Virginia would only cover a predefined list of workers considered essential, including:

  • Law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency responders
  • Essential retail workers (as defined by Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 72)
  • Food manufacturing and supplier workers
  • Childcare providers
  • Transportation workers
  • Educators 
  • Domestic workers
  • Prison and jail personnel

Guzman, who is also running for lieutenant governor, has proposed similar paid sick leave bills in the past. Last year, her proposal also passed the House, but was spiked by the more conservative Democratic caucus in the Senate

Advocates for mandatory paid sick leave are taking a similar approach to last year, making the case that the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need. They’ve found allies in public health officials like Dr. Danny Avula, who’s been tapped to head Virginia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout.

At a pre-General Assembly session press conference, Avula discussed the difficult balancing act working families have to go through when determining whether they should get tested for COVID-19.

“I know there are thousands of people who are not getting tested, who are not picking up the phone when the health department calls, because for them it’s literally life and death,” Avula said. “Do I not bring home food, income, rent for my family, or do I take this call and know I’m going to have to stay home for ten days.”

Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said advocates are hoping a more narrowly tailored bill that provides flexibility for small businesses will win over skeptical senators.

“We’ve got a bill that we think addresses the concerns that we’ve heard from senators,” Bobo said. “Senators have expressed interest in covering essential workers, so that’s what this bill does.”  

In addition to exempting some part-time workers, Guzman’s bill would exempt business owners with less than 25 employees from having to provide the benefit. It would also allow for a “hardship waiver” for any employer that can provide the state with evidence that paid sick leave would threaten their ability to remain in business.

Still, among the biggest critics of mandatory paid sick leave in Virginia have been business groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses. 

Nicole Riley, Virginia state director of the NFIB, said they appreciated the efforts to mitigate any negative effect on small businesses, but too many questions remained about how the hardship waivers would work. And Riley said they still have a fundamental concern with mandating a policy for all types of businesses.

“It really reduces a small business’s flexibility in trying to address paid sick leave for their employees, [and finding] what works best for them both for their employees and business operations,” she said. 

Guzman’s bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it will meet its first true test.

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