Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Paid sick leave, workers’ compensation, and transparency for nursing homes are some of the biggest pandemic priorities House Democrats say they plan to tackle during a special session of the General Assembly scheduled to begin next week.
Some of the proposals, endorsed by the caucus’ 55-member majority, aim to fix issues that have emerged as Virginia responds to the COVID-19 epidemic — including a months-long refusal to name nursing homes with outbreaks, which attracted bipartisan criticism.
Others, including paid sick time, are long-standing caucus priorities that have previously lacked the consensus needed to pass the full General Assembly.
“I think for some legislators, this is hitting a little bit closer to spirit as they see neighbors struggling with some of the same issues our caucus has discussed for years,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “I think people are seeing the impacts of what happens economically to a family when they can’t take time off.”
Democratic House leaders unveiled their agenda Thursday, just a few days before lawmakers are scheduled to return to Richmond. Like Senate Democrats, they plan to pursue a long list of criminal justice and police reforms, including expanding expungement laws and banning police departments purchasing certain military equipment.
But worker protections also figured prominently. None of the bills have been filed yet and Herring said the specifics are still under discussion. One of the more far-reaching proposals would require businesses to provide paid sick leave to their employees — a measure that House Democrats are hoping to pass permanently.
“I can say that for paid sick leave, that should certainly extend past the pandemic,” Herring said. It’s a measure that failed in the final days of the 2020 session as the then-new coronavirus pandemic was first sparking national conversation. That bill, which would have required businesses with 15 or more employees to grant all workers at least five paid sick days a year, fizzled after the Senate failed to take it up for a final vote.
But as COVID-19 has sickened or killed millions of Americans, mandated leave has become an increasingly critical issue at the state and national level. The first federal coronavirus relief bill notoriously exempted major employers including Amazon, Walmart, and other “essential” businesses from providing paid leave. High-profile lawmakers including Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have pushed Congress to include the requirement in the next relief bill, which is currently stalled in negotiations.
House Democrats are also pursuing protections for businesses as they scramble to respond to regularly-changing safety requirements. One proposal from members would grant civil immunity to businesses that comply with the governor’s health guidance — a measure that’s also received support, at least in concept, from business groups and Republicans.
“There is concern from business owners about being exposed to frivolous lawsuits even if they’re following all the guidelines with things like masks, with spacing the tables apart the appropriate distance,” Herring added. “So, it’s providing that protection from liability unless there was some kind of negligence.”
Another proposal addresses long-standing concerns over the information that’s provided on COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other congregate-care settings. Until mid-June, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Department of Health declined to publicly release the names of senior living centers with cases of the disease, leaving many patients and families in the dark unless the facility itself chose to disclose the information. Even after the reversal, several legislators questioned why it took so long for the administration to make the policy change. The state still won’t release information on outbreaks at poultry plants and other large businesses.
VDH has long relied on several sections of Virginia code to justify the nondisclosure, including one that prohibits the state’s health commissioner from disclosing patient-specific information unless it’s pertinent to “an investigation, research or study” (though there’s an exception for public health efforts). The other, according to VDH, grants individual patient privacy rights to corporations.
But several legislators have disagreed with the department’s interpretation of state laws and expressed an interest in clarifying them.
“The bill is going to be a code cleanup,” Herring said. “To make it clear that this information should be disclosed.”
Other proposed bills include extending workers’ compensation protections to first responders, teachers, and other “high-risk essential workers,” according to a news release from the caucus. Teachers have been especially concerned about the issue after the state’s largest school insurer told division leaders that educators and other employees were unlikely to qualify for compensation claims.
Republican Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, has already filed similar legislation, though her bill does not include teachers on the list of protected personnel.
In the House, Republicans have also filed legislation aimed at keep schools open for at least some students. Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, has introduced two bills on the subject. One would require schools to offer in-person instruction to any student with internet access that provides download speeds slower than 10 megabits a second. A second bill would require schools that close in-person instruction for more than 30 days to provide vouchers covering the expense of at home or private instruction.
“Sadly, Democrats appear to have ignored the growing crisis around school closures,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, in a statement. “Children of all backgrounds and socioeconomic status will fall behind during this period of distance learning. House Republicans will propose a plan to give parents of children with no five-day, in person option for school the ability to find alternatives for their children’s education. No matter their race, zip code, or family income level we cannot allow Virginia students to fall behind.”
The Office of the Attorney General also plans two submit two bills: one to prevent the seizure of stimulus relief checks and the other to prevent price gouging on personal protective equipment, according to the release.
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