Kitchen workers prepare pizzas for carry out orders at Mellow Mushroom in Richmond, Va., May 16, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury

In a largely party-line vote Thursday, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would mandate paid quarantine leave for many of the state’s workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation will head to the Senate for final approval and still requires the governor’s signature if passed by both chambers. But advocates described it as a positive first step amid a public health emergency that’s disproportionately impacted some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including essential workers and communities of color.

“We believe that the best thing for businesses, and for all of us, is to keep workers safe,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which advocated for the bill. “It’s saying that this is a serious issue and that we don’t, as a society, want people to go into work sick.”

For many of the bill’s supporters, it was a hard-won victory after a House committee substantially amended the legislation earlier this week, creating exemptions for businesses with 50 or fewer employees unless they had access to federal grant funding. The substitute bill, drafted by the House Appropriations committee, also excluded any employee who wasn’t already provided with benefits such as paid time off or health insurance — an amendment that many advocates found troubling.

Bobo said that supporters worked closely with the bill’s sponsor, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, to draft a new version after many advocates withdrew their support for the committee substitute. The end result was something that long-time supporters felt they could live with, particularly during the pandemic, said Luis Aguilar, the state director of CASA — a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and immigrant residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

“At least for COVID-19, we can move forward,” he added. “Especially right now, something as simple as paid sick leave is a message that the dignity and the lives of workers matter.”

The latest version of the bill removes a previous committee amendment that defined “eligible employees” as anyone working 20 hours or more a week who was already eligible for benefits — language not included in Guzmán’s original version. The bill now applies to any Virginian working 20 hours or more a week, with the exception of certain home care workers funded through the state’s Medicaid program.

The committee’s earlier eligibility language was largely driven by concerns that the state would end up shouldering the cost of providing paid quarantine leave for “consumer-directed” home care attendants — health workers who are selected by Medicaid members and funded by the state’s program — and health care workers from private agencies that receive Medicaid funding. A fiscal impact statement estimated the costs could be more than $60 million over the next two years.

Guzmán’s spokeswoman, Katie Baker, said the new amendments more specifically excluded those workers to help minimize the cost, but included language to clarify that the state could direct federal CARES Act funding to help provide them with paid leave. The latest version of the bill also exempts only employers with 25 or fewer workers unless they have access to federal grant money.

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)

The exemption doesn’t apply to domestic workers, which means that households with nannies or housekeepers, for example, would still be required to provide paid quarantine leave as long as those employees worked 20 hours a week or more.

“Regardless of how many coworkers you have, you should be able to get paid sick leave,” said Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (Rodgers is also running for mayor in Richmond). “It was important for us, because an employee threshold of 25 would typically cut out domestic workers.”

The bill requires businesses to provide paid quarantine leave that’s equivalent to the number of hours each employee works over two weeks. Employers that already provide the same amount of paid sick leave to their workers would already be in compliance with the legislation.

Opponents, though, said the bill could negatively impact companies that have already been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The bottom line is, this is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” said Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, on Thursday. “It’s going to raise their expenses and it’s going to end up hurting many of the same people you’re trying to help.”

The legislation passed largely on party lines, with one Democrat — Del. Nancy Guy, D-Virginia Beach, joining Republicans to vote against the bill. 

Paid quarantine leave was announced as a major priority for House Democrats ahead of the ongoing special session, but could face a more difficult road in the Senate, which tabled its own version of the legislation in August. Jake Rubenstein, Filler-Corn’s spokesman, said Thursday that the speaker was “committed” to working with senators to ensure the bill passed into law.

Advocates, too, said they considered the measure to be a preview before the 2021 General Assembly session this January, where they — and Guzmán — have pledged to fight for permanent paid sick leave in Virginia. The current House bill is set to expire at the start of July or whenever the governor lifts his current emergency order.

“CASA fully believes that health care and sick leave should be a right,”  Aguilar said. “We know that Virginia is one of the worst states when it comes to worker protections, and we have to change that.”