The Virginia State Capitol.. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The Virginia State Capitol.. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

For Kim Bobo, co-executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the issue is simple.

“How can we call ourselves a civilized society and not allow people to take a few days of paid sick time for themselves or their kids?” she said.

The Richmond-based, nonprofit organization is working on legislation for Virginia lawmakers to consider that would provide five paid sick days to full-time employees, while exempting employers with five or fewer employees.

So far, 13 states and numerous cities have instituted mandatory paid sick days, with Nevada and Maine doing so earlier this year, according to Families Value @ Work, a national paid leave advocacy group. Another eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have created paid Family and Medical Leave programs.

Though the two are similar, leave typically refers to long-term situations, like for pregnancy or a prolonged illness. Sick days are exactly what they sound like: The chance for workers to simply take a day off if they or a family member is sick.

The Interfaith Center supports both options, Bobo said, though it is pushing for paid sick days specifically this year. Five days per year is a reasonable standard, she argues.

According to a 2015 estimate by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, about 41 percent of Virginia workers do not have access to paid sick days. That’s about 1.2 million workers.

Though it was named the top state to do business earlier this month, Virginia came in at number 51 (the rankings include Washington, D.C.) overall in Oxfam’s Best and Worst States to Work in America for 2018, Virginia AFL-CIO President Doris Crouse-Mays’ pointed out in a column.

“Workers are really struggling, both because we still have the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and because there are very few standards in Virginia,” Bobo said.

Legislation has been submitted to the General Assembly pretty consistently over the last few years, whether for paid Family and Medical Leave or for paid sick days. But in the Republican-controlled legislature, the bills rarely make it out of committee.

Bobo, though, is optimistic about the chances of her organization’s legislation. Though she said the Interfaith Center is working with Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Fairfax, and Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, she is hoping that Republican cosponsors will sign on.

“And there will be some who say: ‘Well, we don’t think there should be a standard, people will voluntarily do it,'” Bobo said. “Well, they would have done it and they have not.”

Nicole Riley, Virginia state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, argues that, with Virginia’s economy doing well, small business owners who can make paid sick days available to their employees likely already have.

“Unfortunately, when you have a broad mandate that requires one-size-fits-all, it really restricts the flexibility that small business owners have in providing paid leave that really works for the employees,” she argues.

Riley said she hasn’t seen the proposal for five sick days, but she noted that “In general our members would still have concerns how a mandate, no matter how small it may seem, would limit their flexibility in setting employees benefits that work for both the employee and employer.”

Mandates would likely require businesses to cut staff, Riley said. NFIB has made similar arguments when leave proposals were floated in other states and cities, such as Austin, Texas, last year.

“The amount of paperwork that they would have to do to comply with these new mandates is actually pretty burdensome for small business owners,” Riley said. “A lot of people forget that they don’t have a human resources department or compliance officers that handle this stuff like a large corporation does.”

But Bobo points to studies that show paid sick day policies are cost-effective. In a 2017 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that paid sick leave could help reduce absenteeism related to the spread of flu and other illnesses. If employees with the flu had the option to stay home, they could prevent coworkers from getting infected. The CDC estimated it would save employers almost $1 to $2 billion in absenteeism costs.

The public health benefits are just one of the slew of reasons Bobo said the Interfaith Center is supporting paid sick days. Another major issue is children’s health and preventing sick kids from going to school.

“It’s absolutely critical for children, when they’re sick, to be able to stay home, which means a parent has to stay home with them,” she said. “If you have no paid sick days, it’s really a tough choice, particularly for low-wage workers.”

Kids sent to school sick infect other students and their teachers, and Bobo said teachers have told her that sometimes older children will be made to stay home from school to be with their sick, younger siblings so their parents can go to work.

“For the average low-wage worker, if you lose three-and-a-half days of work due to being sick — that’s a month’s worth of groceries,” Bobo added. “So the connection between paid sick days and food insecurity is also really clear.”