‘Things we cannot support’: Advocates back away from quarantine leave bill after major changes

By: - September 9, 2020 12:01 am

Customers sit on the patio for lunch at Mellow Mushroom in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. U.S. lawmakers are looking for a deal on billions in aid for restaurants and other businesses hit hard by the pandemic. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

The future of quarantine leave for some of Virginia’s most vulnerable workers is uncertain after a House of Delegates committee made major changes to a bill that would have mandated it for any employee without paid time off.

The original legislation, filed by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, would have required almost all employers to offer at least two weeks of paid leave to any employee working “on average at least 20 hours a week,” according to the language of the bill. Employees could take leave not only if they were exposed or tested positive for COVID-19, but to care for family members who needed to quarantine.

“Without paid time off, workers are being asked to choose between their jobs and their family’s health,” Guzmán said last month when the bill first passed through the House Labor and Commerce committee. But last week, the House Appropriations committee passed an amended version of the legislation — developed by committee staff — that would sharply limit the number of workers eligible for the new protections.

Now, some of the strongest advocates for the bill are reconsidering their support. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, a faith-based advocacy coalition, is not supporting the committee substitute, Policy and Campaigns Director Ben Hoyne said in a phone interview on Friday. Virginia AFL-CIO, a union representing more than 320,000 workers, supported Guzmán’s original bill but is not taking a position on the amended version, communications director Destiny LeVere said Tuesday.

The same is true for CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and immigrant residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

“It seems to me that the legislature is completely disconnected from the lived reality of workers,” said CASA’s Virginia director, Luis Aguilar, in an interview on Tuesday. “The amendments, and the fact that the bill has been weakened, sends a very strong message to the workers themselves.”

Some of the biggest concerns revolve around which workers would be eligible for paid leave under the committee substitute. Guzmán’s legislation defined “eligible employee” as any Virginian working 20 hours or more a week. But the new version that passed through House Appropriations last week defines an eligible employee as anyone working 20 hours or more a week who is already eligible for benefits.

In practice, that means the legislation would exclude any worker who isn’t already receiving some form of employer-provided protection such as health insurance or paid time off — an amendment that puzzled many of the bill’s former supporters. 

“Certainly the various carveouts are deeply concerning and things we cannot support,” Hoyne said. Aguilar pointed out that the exception would be especially detrimental for the state’s foreign-born workers, who often labor in jobs — such as construction, hospitality, manufacturing and meat processing — that are less likely to offer benefits to employees. 

“Again, it’s just that huge disconnect,” he said. “The legislators are going to be able to push a bill forward and say that they have achieved something, but if they really wanted to back workers, their actions would need to match their words.”

Guzmán, and committee staff, said the new eligibility language was driven in part by a fiscal impact statement drafted by the state’s Department of Planning and Budget, which estimated that the original version of the bill would cost Virginia more than $60 million to implement over the next two years. 

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, stands during a moment of prayer in the House of Delegates during the 2020 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Many of those costs were expected to be shouldered by the Department of Medical Assistance Services, which administers the state’s Medicaid program. According to the analysis, DMAS would be responsible for providing paid quarantine leave to nearly 22,000 “consumer-directed” home care attendants — health workers who are selected by Medicaid members and funded by the state’s program. Many of those workers average more than 20 hours a week of labor, according to the analysis, but don’t always receive benefits.

The report also anticipates that DMAS would be required to pick up the cost of leave for home care attendants who work for private agencies, under the assumption that those agencies could not fund both paid quarantine and the cost of hiring additional replacement workers. 

“While not explicit in the bill, DMAS assumes the state would need to fund this quarantine leave or lose the agency directed model,” the analysis reads. The anticipated cost of paid leave for consumer-directed and agency-directed attendants, along with additional administrative costs, is nearly $60 million over two years. Additional costs for Medicaid-funded providers such as nursing homes — which don’t always provide health insurance or paid leave to all of their workers — would result in “significant pressure” to raise the state’s rate of Medicaid reimbursement, according to the report.

But advocates were also surprised by a committee amendment that seemed tailored to concerns from long-time opponents of the bill, including the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, which argued that new paid leave requirements would be another burden for small companies already hard-hit by the pandemic. Under the final clause of the amended bill, businesses with 50 workers or fewer would be exempted unless a grant program “dedicated to assisting employers provide paid quarantine leave” — and funded by federal COVID-19 relief dollars — was available to them. 

In late July, Gov. Ralph Northam announced he was devoting $70 million of the state’s federal CARES Act dollars to a recovery fund for small employers. But the grant money is only available to businesses with 25 employees or fewer, and can’t go to employers that have already received Paycheck Protection Program loans or other CARES Act benefits.

“This exempts more than 95 percent of Virginia’s businesses,” said Kim Bobo, the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, who testified against the carveout last week. Committee staff said other funding could be available through the CARES Act or future bills, but even opponents pointed out that available federal grant funding expires at the end of the year. So far, Congress has yet to pass another federal stimulus bill. 

Guzmán has filed a budget amendment that would direct 20 percent of the state’s unexpended funding for small business relief to go to employers with 50 workers or fewer — an effort to make more grant funding available for paid quarantine leave. The future of the committee substitute is also up in the air after the House voted Tuesday to skip a planned second reading of the bill. That gives legislators more time to hone the legislation, which was announced as a major priority for House Democrats ahead of the ongoing special session.

“I think the fight is not over,” Guzmán said in a phone interview Tuesday, adding in a later statement that she is working with labor leaders and others “through the legislative process with the goal of covering as many people as we can get support for.”

Many of the bill’s former supporters said those changes would be vital to truly protect Virginia’s workers during the ongoing pandemic. Paid sick leave has been a significant hurdle in the General Assembly for years, not only for Guzmán — who introduced unsuccessful bills in 2018, 2019 and 2020 — but other legislators, as well. Another paid sick bill failed earlier this year on the final day of the 2020 session. A similar pandemic leave bill from Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, failed to clear a Senate committee at the start of the special session.

“This session was called to provide real solutions to COVID-19,” Aguilar said. “And this is just another example of government, and especially the General Assembly now, failing to strategize and provide solutions to working-class communities.”

Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Sen. Barbara Favola’s district.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.