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

Advocates and a handful of Virginia lawmakers have been calling for paid sick days since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But any chance of guaranteeing paid quarantine leave for workers died Wednesday in a Senate committee, where legislators voted 14-1 to table a bill mandating employers to provide time off.

The legislation’s sponsor, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, said the near-unanimous vote marked a frustrating end for the bill, which went through several rounds of revisions to make it more palatable at a time when businesses — and many state lawmakers — have been emphasizing the financial toll of the pandemic. 

The final version of the measure, which passed the House last week, required employers to provide the equivalent of two weeks of paid leave for employees working 20 hours or more a week. But it exempted businesses with 25 workers or fewer unless they had access to federal grant funding. Certain home care workers paid through the state’s Medicaid program were also exempted — largely driven by concerns that the state would end up shouldering the cost of paid leave for those employees.

“We have seen businesses being taken care of by the federal government, state government and local government,” Guzmán said. “I even introduced a grant to help small businesses if they wanted to pay employees for quarantine time. So, we were trying to look at the whole picture here and not just have a one-sided conversation.”

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)

But members of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on both sides of the aisle seemed unconvinced that employers could afford the cost of paid leave — an argument that’s been endorsed by the business community throughout the ongoing special session. Nicole Riley, Virginia’s state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a Wednesday statement that the bill would have added costs and reduced flexibility for businesses “already facing pandemic-related financial burdens.”

Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, argued the same in committee, saying the bill was “insensitive in its lack of perspective to the fiscal stress that Virginia businesses are currently experiencing.”

“We have no business placing additional stress on our businesses during this period of time,” he added.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, said that the bill was “a good idea, but the timing isn’t right for it.”  Eleven of the committee’s 12 Democratic members joined Republicans in killing the bill. Only Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, voted against tabling the legislation. (Democrats control both the House and the Senate.)

Some advocates said the committee decision was unsurprising given the Senate’s more conservative approach throughout the ongoing special session. Early on, legislators killed a similar paid leave bill from Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, which would have capped the amount of mandated paid time off for workers at 40 hours. 

Another committee killed the Senate version of a bill that would make it easier for first responders, teachers and health care workers to claim worker’s compensation for COVID-19. Similar legislation from Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, passed the House earlier this month.

Senate lawmakers have said that significant pieces of legislation — including a recently failed qualified immunity bill — would have unintended consequences that couldn’t be fully considered during the special session (which, ostensibly was convened primarily to adjust the state’s two-year budget). Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who voted against Guzmán’s bill in committee, said there were similar worries over paid quarantine leave.

“I don’t even think there’s a consensus among labor about the bill,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday, pointing to several earlier amendments — later removed — that were met with heavy criticism by the bill’s supporters.

“If a bill has any amount of complexity, it’s very hard to work that out in special session,” Surovell added. “This is a bill that could affect thousands of employers.”

Many advocates, though, described the vote as a failure on the part of the Senate — and an indicator that businesses continued to take priority over workers despite the General Assembly’s Democratic majority.

“It will be interesting to see how any of the senators can come out after this session and say, ‘This is what we did for workers,’” said Luis Aguilar, the state director of CASA — a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and immigrant residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

“In reality, they failed to advance something that would benefit workers directly,” he added. “It is clear to me that there is no coherent strategy to address this pandemic — from the federal level to the state level — regardless of the party in charge.”

The failure of the bill also marked a blow for House Democratic leaders, who announced paid quarantine leave as one of their top priorities for the special session. Some of the chamber’s top leadership were banking their hopes on Guzmán’s bill being seen as workably different from Favola’s, which included all businesses with at least 21 employees and applied to all future pandemics. Guzmán’s, in contrast, explicitly expired at the end of the governor’s current state of emergency.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, later pledged to continue fighting for the chamber’s agenda, writing on Twitter that “there are no shortcuts when it comes to delivering for Virginians in these unprecedented times.”

Federal coronavirus legislation included some provisions for paid sick leave, but created significant exemptions for employers with fewer than 50 workers, large companies with more than 500 workers, and broad categories of “essential” employees, including health care workers. Guzmán has argued that the significant carveouts made it especially important for Virginia to pass its own, more stringent protections.

“I think that it is worse to have to close your business because you have workers testing positive for coronavirus,” she said Wednesday. “And as someone who has worked a minimum wage job with no benefits to make rent, I know people are going to go to work sick. They’ll avoid getting tested at all because they can’t afford to take that time off.”