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By Kim Bobo

Virginia’s failure to require employers to offer paid sick days, combined with the coronavirus outbreak, could contribute to a public health emergency. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warns that a coronavirus outbreak  in America is “imminent.”  In Virginia, the Department of Health has monitored 279 travelers and eight possible cases have tested negative. The department, along with hospitals, schools and universities, is preparing for a potential crisis.

Sixty cases and counting have been diagnosed across the U.S. and the CDC has warned Americans that community spread of the virus is almost certain and disruptions to daily life could be “severe.” Worldwide, the coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate. There have been hundreds of deaths and thousands of cases in 47 countries. Japan and China have closed schools. Airports are being closed. Cruise ships have been quarantined. U.S. stocks continue to plummet.  

Meanwhile, as fear of a pandemic is spreading, Virginia legislators are debating whether or not Virginia employers should be required to offer paid (or unpaid) sick days to their employees. A paid sick day law is an opportunity for our elected officials to do something concrete to prevent the spread of disease.

The Virginia Department of Health says the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to stay home from work or school if you are sick and see a doctor if necessary. That means people would have to take time off from work to care for themselves or a family member. That’s called a “sick day” – but there is no law in Virginia that requires employers to provide workers with paid sick days. We are facing a public health emergency and have no laws to protect workers who get sick.

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy has been working with partners and legislators to enact this simple, yet essential law. As a non-partisan coalition of faith communities working for a more just society, VICPP views paid sick days as a moral and an economic justice issue.  

More than 1.2 million Virginia workers (41% of private sector workers) have no paid sick days or paid time off.  To make matters worse, 81% of food service workers and 75% of child care workers have no paid sick days. The food service and health care professions require close contact with the public and diseases can spread quickly in restaurants and health care facilities.

Many workers cannot afford to take a day off from work because they live paycheck to paycheck. Others are afraid to take time off because they could get fired for doing so. That means that hundreds of thousands of employees across the commonwealth are forced to choose between losing a day’s pay (jeopardizing their financial security) and going to work sick. So they go to work sick and send their sick children to school. The coronavirus or the flu could spread like wildfire. In fact, last year 34,200 people died from the flu. Perhaps some of them could have been saved if they had access to paid sick days to take care of themselves and heal.

Sen. Barbara Favola, Del. Elizabeth Guzman and other legislators have been fighting for a paid sick days bill (SB481) that would require all employers with 15 or more employees to provide up to 40 hours/five days of paid sick time. This modest proposal would protect workers, reduce the spread of colds and the flu and protect businesses from the spread of deadly illnesses like the coronavirus. We recognize that five days is not always enough time to heal from a virus, but it would make a huge difference in stemming the spread of disease in the Commonwealth. Virginians need to be able to stay home if they are sick or if their children are sick.

Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said “it’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.” How many people will get sick in Virginia this season? Can those who get sick take time off from work to heal or will they be forced to go to work sick and spread disease? It’s the job of our legislators to protect the public health.

We implore our legislators to support SB481 to protect Virginia’s workers, families, and our economy.

Kim Bobo is executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.