A renewed push for required paid sick leave in Virginia will be scaled back in 2021

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)– There’s a renewed push to require paid sick days for some employees in Virginia but bills expected in the 2021 legislative session will be scaled back compared to earlier efforts.

At least three versions of paid sick leave bills have been killed just within the last year, even with Democrats in control of the General Assembly. Lawmakers championing the policy are making concessions to win over skeptics this time around, though it’s still unclear if it will work.

In the first of several “virtual community tours” in support of paid sick leave on Tuesday, advocates said COVID-19 has exposed how closely health equity is tied to economics.

Richmond and Henrico Health Director Dr. Danny Avula said coronavirus spread could’ve been drastically reduced if more workers had access to this benefit from the beginning.

“The vast majority of our exposures and our outbreaks are happening in workplaces,” Avula said. “I know that there are thousands of people who are not getting tested, who are not picking up the phone when the Health Department calls because it’s literally life or death.”

Joshua Briere is supporting himself financially while studying at Virginia Commonwealth University. For him and many others working in the restaurant industry, missing a paycheck isn’t an option.

“A day gone from work could mean no groceries or a late rent payment,” Briere said. “We need to ensure that there is a safety net for Virginians when they get sick. It’s immoral in my opinion to do anything besides that.”

But restaurant workers like Briere aren’t currently included in a bill being introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) later this month.

The legislation would require certain businesses to provide at least five paid sick days to full-time employees, though part-time workers would not be covered. The mandate would apply to at least eight categories of employees defined as “essential,” including those working in emergency services, food plants, child care, domestic work, education, healthcare and home healthcare.

The requirement would also cover employees of essential retail businesses as defined by Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order. The order includes staff at grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor stores, convenience stores, gas stations, banks and pet stores, among others establishments.

“We’re really narrowing down the bill to essential workers because after speaking with a few senators they said it’s something they could support,” Guzman said. “We would love to give it to the 1.2 million Virginians that don’t have access currently but the reality is we don’t have the votes.”

The bill could still have a hard time clearing the Senate, even watered down.

Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) sponsored a bill that would’ve required Virginia businesses with 15 employees or more to provide up to five days of paid sick leave. It died over a final-hour fiscal concern in the 2020 regular session.

“Since then, I think the whole economy has changed. The whole world has changed,” Favola said in a phone interview when asked why she isn’t bringing the legislation back this year.

Favola is also passing on a different proposal that failed in the 2020 special session, which 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.

Favola raised doubts that Guzman’s bill in its current form could pass in the upper chamber this year. She said some of her colleagues are likely to take issue with the lack of an exclusion for small businesses.

“Anything applying to businesses with less than 50 employees without adding additional financial support would be very challenging right now,” Favola said.

Guzman said her bill will include a provision allowing certain businesses experiencing serious financial hardship to opt out of the mandate.

Nicole Riley, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said while Guzman’s bill addresses some of the group’s concerns, they still aren’t likely to support it.

“We’re also facing an economic crisis for small business owners and now really isn’t the time to put additional requirements on them as they’re trying to rebuild their business,” Riley said.

Favola said she plans to introduce a bill requiring employers that already offer a sick leave program to allow their staff to use up to five days of that benefit to care for an immediate family member who is ill. The legislation is still being drafted but, in its current form, the measure would only apply to employers that have 25 or more staff members.

Riley said it’s too soon to say whether the NFIB would support Favola’s legislation. “The devil will be in the details,” she said.

If either of these bills pass, they likely wouldn’t be implemented until July 1, 2021. By then, Gov. Northam has said that most Virginians will have had an opportunity to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Guzman said Northam could potentially take action to force the mandate to take effect immediately. Otherwise, she said the paid sick days could still be used for health conditions other than the coronavirus.

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