Much to the delight of business groups and dismay of employee advocates, a Senate committee killed legislation on Wednesday to require employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave for workers who have to quarantine because of exposure or infection by COVID-19.
The 14-1 vote by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee effectively closes the possibility of passing a sick leave requirement during the special General Assembly session called in part to address the effects of the COVID-19 public health emergency on Virginians. The same committee killed a similar bill earlier in the special session, also by a wide bipartisan margin.
Only Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, voted against the motion to kill House Bill 5116, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William.
Guzman, a likely candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor next year, said the committee killed legislation that would have allowed people infected by COVID-19 or exposed to the virus to “not have to choose between a paycheck and further spreading the disease.”
“This is dangerous to public health and a slap in the face to hardworking Virginians across the commonwealth,” she said in response to the Senate committee vote.
The bill, as adopted by the House last week, would have applied only to businesses with more than 25 employees. It would not have applied to state employees unless federal emergency funding were available to pay for it. The requirement also would have ended with the public health emergency, but no later than July 1, 2021.
“This is not an anti-business bill,” Guzman told the committee.
However, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, called the legislation “insensitive” to the plight of businesses under severe financial stress because of restrictions on their operations and public fear of contracting the coronavirus during the public health emergency that Gov. Ralph Northam declared on March 12.
“We have no business placing additional stress on our businesses at this period of time,” Norment said.
Guzman, a native of Peru, said the vote showed that the Senate is insensitive to the stress faced by low-wage workers in the pandemic, especially people of color, who face a predicament she knows too well.
“When I first came to this country as a single mother with $300 to my name, I worked three minimum wage jobs with no benefits and sometimes had to leave my sick child home so that I could make rent,” she said. “Black and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by this disease in part because many are frontline workers with no benefits who can’t afford to stay home. They are making the same decision I would have made.”
“This bill would have saved lives,” Guzman said. “I never again want to hear any elected official brag that Virginia is #1 for business when today’s vote proves we are still last for workers.”
In contrast, business groups quickly hailed the committee decision to kill the bill. “Small businesses are already facing pandemic-related financial burdens and restrictions on their operations, so the last thing they needed is another government mandate that would add costs and reduce their flexibility,” said Nicole Riley, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, representing 6,000 small businesses across Virginia.
Riley said businesses do not oppose helping employees affected by COVID-19, but don’t support a requirement that would apply to all situations.
“Each business is different, and they need to figure out their own best solution,” she said. “Tying their hands behind their back with another one-size-fits-all mandate would have made their economic recovery even more difficult.”
A separate bill to ensure that workers’ compensation covers the costs of COVID-19 for infected employees is likely headed to a similar fate. The commerce committee referred House Bill 5028, proposed by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, which already let die without action a similar bill proposed by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax.
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