The Virginia Senate narrowly passed a bill mandating paid sick leave for home health care workers who care for Medicaid recipients on Thursday after severely limiting the scope of which essential workers would be included in the legislation.
Led by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, the measure initially extended at least five days of paid sick leave for those on the front lines of the public health crisis who work at least 20 hours per week such as cleaning staff, restaurant workers, child care providers and grocery store clerks.
In Virginia, 760,114 people are essential workers, according to the Commonwealth Institute. At least a third are part time, and between 34% and 64% are Black or Latino.
Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, submitted a substitution in a Senate Commerce and Labor committee meeting on Monday that defined “employee” as a home health worker or “an individual who provides personal care, respite, or companion services to an individual who receives consumer-directed services under the state plan for medical assistance.”
Employers can still choose to opt out through a hardship waiver detailing a negative financial impact on their business. The allotted paid sick leave may be used to take care of a sick family member and would not require employees to find a replacement to cover their hours or make up a shift.
The rule would apply to at least 25,000 home health aides who have cared for older Virginians with disabilities who rely on them to live, but exclude agency workers. Most don’t have health insurance. Nine in 10 are women. More than 60% are Black and Latino, according to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute.
“One woman [has] said to me, ‘Honey, you look like you should be in bed, and I should be the one taking care of you. That’s not right,’” said Joyce Barnes, an eastern Henrico County resident who has worked in home health care for more than 30 years.
Barnes has worked while sick before to avoid risking a shorted check. With no health insurance and little possibilities of social distancing in a pandemic, Wednesday was a victory in a yearslong fight.
“They are the heroes of the pandemic and should not have to choose between their own health and a paycheck,” said Guzman, a candidate for lieutenant governor, in a statement. “My mother was a home health care worker and never had a single paid day off. She is so happy and so am I, but I will keep fighting until no worker is left behind.”
Currently, about 1.2 million essential workers in Virginia wouldn’t be able to quarantine without sacrificing wages if they got infected.
Public health officials including Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, have championed a long-debated expansion of paid sick leave to hourly wage workers for a chance at beating the virus. In Jan. 5 news conference led by Virginians for Paid Sick Days, Avula said the policy would have “drastic reductions in the exposure and the potential for spread.”
Similar efforts are underway in California, where labor advocates are urging the state’s legislature to expand medical leave and prioritize its essential workers in low-wage jobs “to prevent needless suffering and death.”
But before the bill, HB 2137, passed the Virginia House of Delegates in a 54-46 vote on Feb. 4, some Virginia businesses said the requirement would wreak havoc on struggling small businesses. Others began a coalition in support named Small Businesses for Paid Sick Days.
“This new standard will level the playing field for small businesses that already offer paid sick leave with their larger competitors while keeping our workforce healthy,” said Awesta Sarkash, government affairs manager for Small Business Majority.
A study from the National Partnership for Women and Families found that working while sick costs the U.S. economy about $234 billion each year when adjusted for inflation due to lost productivity.
Thursday’s passage entirely removed private-sector employees. The cost would be shouldered by the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, which runs the state Medicaid program.
Earlier this week. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, questioned whether Gov. Ralph Northam would amend the bill to widen the scope of workers included.
“I can tell you this, if he does amend it to put the private sector in, I’m going to vote no,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.