‘They’re going to work sick’- bill could mandate paid quarantine leave in Virginia

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A bill requiring businesses with more than 25 employees to provide two weeks of paid quarantine leave for people to care for themselves or family members with COVID-19 passed in Virginia’s House of Delegates this week.

Before it could gain sufficient support among lawmakers, some say the legislation was “gutted,” leaving a significant share of the workforce out. Opponents say the unfunded mandate could break businesses already reeling from months of restrictions and revenue losses.

For Joyce Barnes, not getting paid is not an option.

“I would lose my apartment. I would lose out on everything,” Barnes said. “Home healthcare workers will go to work sick and take that chance just to get the money we need to carry on.”

Barnes, who has high blood pressure, cares for two elderly clients that are also at high risk for COVID-19. Without paid sick leave, Barnes fears she’ll once again have to sacrifice caring for herself.

“I’m in my 60’s and if I get sick it would take me down. That’s the scary part for me,” Barnes said.

The bill introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) requires domestic workers be provided paid quarantine leave, regardless of the number of people their employer has on the payroll.

“This is a bill to let them know that we hear you and we feel for you,” Guzman said.

Across the board, the bill says employees have to work more than 20 hours weekly and receive benefits to qualify. Those who are able to work remotely during quarantine are not eligible for the paid leave, unless a healthcare provider concludes a patient’s symptoms are too severe.

Advocates leading a coalition pushing for a sweeping paid sick leave mandate in the commonwealth were disappointed in the version that passed the House but thankful for what could be a first step towards their final goal.

“We went from supporting it to opposing it and we are now back to reluctantly supporting it,” said Virginia Interfaith Center Executive Director Kim Bobo in a press release.

“Our biggest concern is that the bill exempts employers with fewer than 25 workers, a relatively arbitrary number that exempts more than 90 percent of Virginia’s businesses and approximately a third of all workers from coverage,” the release continued.

Guzman said, when it was introduced, her bill called for two weeks of paid quarantine leave for all full time employees and an additional five days of paid sick leave for conditions other than COVID-19. Its sister bill in the Senate died in committee early in the special session.

“There was not enough support in the Senate so then we said what can we do in the House,” Guzman said.

Guzman said the latest version significantly reduced the financial impact on the state as lawmakers are trying to reconcile a $2.7 billion dollar budget shortfall expected over two years.

Even watered down, some fear the bill goes too far.

Nicole Riley is the Virginia Director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which has about 6,000 members throughout the state.

“A lot of these business owners, particularly small business owners, aren’t going to be able to recover and pay these extra costs,” Riley said.

Riley also called the bill redundant since Congress passed a bill earlier this year that already requires many employers to offer paid sick leave during the pandemic. The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry also imposed additional regulations for business owners.

“Why add another layer of state regulation that would confuse and eliminate flexibility,” Riley said.

Guzman said the state legislation is different because it doesn’t allow businesses experiencing financial hardship to apply for a waiver. “There are many businesses who are taking advantage of that and not doing the right thing,” she said.

Guzman estimated that her bill could grant this benefit to 600,000 more Virginians.

As lawmakers debated the bill, confusion also arose over how the creation of a grant program to help businesses offset the cost of paid quarantine leave would impact the mandate. Guzman said lawmakers still have to approve the program in the budget and, regardless of the outcome, businesses with 25 employees or less will be exempt.

The House bill still needs the approval of the Senate and Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature. If it becomes law, the measures will only remain in effect until the end of the fiscal year or the end of the governor’s state of emergency, which has no set deadline.

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