Partisan divide remains on plans to mandate paid sick leave in Virginia

By: - October 21, 2019 3:59 pm

The Capitol at dusk. Lawmakers have sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin giving localities new powers to go after substandard housing. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A bipartisan panel of lawmakers reviewing proposals that would require Virginia businesses to give their employees paid sick and family leave adjourned for the year without offering a recommendation one way or the other.

One bill proposed by six House Democrats would mandate that employers offer employees 24 hours of paid medical and family leave a year.

A second, more far-reaching proposal put forward Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, would establish a medical and family leave program administered by state labor officials and funded through payroll taxes in a manner similar to the state’s unemployment insurance program.

“My sense is that we haven’t gotten to a consensus of moving forward or junking,” said Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, who chaired the joint sub-committee’s final meeting.

Though no formal votes were taken, Democrats on the committee spoke in favorable terms about both proposals. Meanwhile, some Republicans sounded open to the 24-hour proposal put forward by House Democrats and somewhat skeptical of Boysko’s proposed plan, which would offer up to 12 weeks of leave per year, funded by a payroll tax that would generate more than $1 billion every year.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, called that cost “a bit of an issue,” but suggested the General Assembly should take some action on the issue. “To me it’s just silly that there are employers who are out there that say, no you can’t go to the doctor,” he said. “You’re fired.”

So far, 13 states and numerous cities have instituted mandatory paid sick days, 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.

Advocacy and workers groups say the benefits of the proposals outweighed any associated costs, arguing among other things that it would reduce the spread of disease that stems from sick employees going to work or parents of sick children sending them to school anyway because they can’t get time off.

“This could be a start of being on the side of workers in Virginia,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, the lead patron of the House bill.

Major business and industry groups opposed the changes, arguing that benefits packages are better left to the private marketplace and warning that any new mandates could jeopardize Virginia’s recent ranking as a top state for businesses.

A representative of the National Federation of Independent Business described the proposals as “California-style public policies that interfere with the employee-employer relationship and the free market principles that make Virginia a top state to do business.”

Democrats on the committee countered that Virginia is at the bottom of rankings for worker protections and argued that there is a cost to that as well.

“To be number one for business and last for workers – that’s a problem,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “We must do better.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.