Even at large employers, few frontline service workers in Virginia have access to paid sick leave

By: - December 10, 2020 12:03 am

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

Only a third of workers at the largest service industry employers in Virginia have access to paid sick leave, according to a report by researchers at Harvard’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy and the University of California San Francisco.

Advocacy groups, who hope the finding will propel the General Assembly to pass long-debated paid time off legislation, called the report particularly notable because it contradicts arguments made by business groups, who have told lawmakers most large employers already provide the benefit.

“We might assume that big firms with extensive HR systems and potentially deep pockets of course already provide paid sick leave, but that’s not true,” said Daniel Schneider, an author on the report and professor of public policy and sociology at Harvard University. “Large shares of workers at these firms report they don’t have access at their jobs.”

The study is based on surveys from 733 hourly service-sector employees working at 103 of Virginia’s biggest food-service and retail firms. It found access varied dramatically by industry, with 93 percent of employees at hardware and building supply stores, for example, saying they had paid sick time, while only seven percent of workers at casual dining restaurants reported the same.

“Certainly, in the sectors around fast food and casual dining, we see some of the lowest rates of workers reporting access,” Schneider said. “And there’s also inequality in who has access to paid sick leave.”

In Virginia, 39 percent of Hispanic workers and 36 percent of White workers report having paid time off. That figure falls to 26 percent for Black employees. Rates are also lower for parents with children under the age of 10 and higher for workers without children.

Schneider has been collecting surveys from service-sector workers since the fall of 2016 through The Shift Project, an effort to collect data documenting the experiences and well-being of hourly employees across the country. Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, reached out to him for state-specific data as part of the nonprofit’s advocacy efforts for a paid sick leave policy in Virginia.

“This is not a very high bar, and yet we know that 1.2 million workers in Virginia don’t have paid sick days,” she said.

Legislation that would require businesses to provide paid leave has faced steep opposition in Virginia, even after Democrats, many of whom campaigned on worker-friendly policies, won majorities in the General Assembly last year.

A bill that would have provided up to five days of paid sick leave a year to workers died in the final days of the 2020 legislative session just as COVID-19 began spreading in Virginia. Lawmakers reintroduced the policy during an 83-day special session that stretched from August to early November, filing bills that would require most businesses to provide two weeks of paid quarantine leave to workers for the duration of the public health emergency.

The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, failed early on in the chamber’s Commerce and Labor Committee. The same committee killed the House version of the legislation, proposed by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, in September, despite several rounds of revisions intended to make the bill more palatable at a time when businesses said they were struggling under the financial strain of the pandemic.

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

“We have no business placing additional stress on our businesses during this period of time,” Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in September before the vote to table the bill. 

All but one of the Democratic lawmakers on the Senate committee sided with Republicans in voting against the bill, with many arguing that the timing wasn’t right for legislation with potentially widespread financial implications.

Opponents of the legislation have long said that the financial cost to businesses was too great, especially during a pandemic that’s made it harder for many small companies to stay afloat. Nicole Riley, who directs the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said that the “vast majority of businesses are already providing paid leave” in testimony against Guzmán’s bill. Jodi Roth, a representative for the Virginia Retail Federation, similarly argued that the “lack of flexibility” in a statewide paid sick leave policy would make it difficult for many businesses to comply.

But Schneider said his research shows that even large national companies don’t provide paid time off for many employees. Bobo said the discrepancies in paid time off between many industries also undermined the argument that businesses couldn’t afford the extra expense of providing sick leave during the pandemic.

“To me, one of the most striking things was that only about a third of grocery store workers have paid sick days in Virginia,” she said. “And no one can suggest that grocery stores are struggling in this economy. They are thriving. And yet two-thirds of their workers can’t take sick time, and these folks are in daily contact with the public.”

A March study of five states and Washington, D.C., which all implemented paid sick leave laws, found that employees who received the benefit averaged two sick days a year at an average cost to employers of 20 cents per hour worked, according to The New York Times. The COVID-19 pandemic has also underscored the potentially wide-ranging public health effects of the policy. A recent article in the journal Health Affairs found that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — the first federal aid package — resulted in roughly 400 fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases a day in states who gained access to paid sick leave through the policy.

But the FFCRA also included significant loopholes for companies with more than 500 employees, small businesses with less than 50 employees, and many health care providers. Schneider said it was also the first significant attempt at a federal paid sick leave policy for years, which is why many states — including Virginia — are looking to fill those gaps on their own.

“People who don’t actually work frontline service sector jobs might think, ‘Look, if you’re really sick, you just stay home,’” he said. “But that’s a luxury few frontline workers can afford. They are not making very much and they are struggling for hours, even in good times. These workers are really living on the edge.”

In Virginia, a little over a third of service sector employees reported they couldn’t fully pay their utility bills at least once in the last year, according to Shift Project data. Twenty-three percent reported going hungry at least once in the same period, and 45 percent said they would find it difficult — if not impossible — to cover an unexpected $400 expense.

The issue is personal for Guzmán, who said she worked three jobs without paid time off when she first came to the U.S. But it’s still uncertain whether a paid sick leave policy — which has previously cleared the House on party-line votes — could make it through the Senate, where there’s historically been resistance even from Democratic legislators.

Guzmán said she’s currently working with Favola to draft a new version of the legislation, which might only be filed in the House due to constraints on the number of bills that legislators can file in a potentially abbreviated 2021 session. It’s likely the bill would require employers to provide 40 hours of paid leave for full-time employees, but Guzmán said legislators are still negotiating on which workers will be covered — including whether to include any part-time employees.

Another potential concession to skeptics of the bill is an exemption for businesses with 25 workers or fewer. But Riley said Thursday that NFIB wouldn’t support paid sick leave legislation even with the exception. And Bobo said it’s a clause that wouldn’t be supported by the Interfaith Center and many other advocates.

“We believe that’s way too high,” she said. Virginians for Paid Sick Days, a coalition of worker advocacy groups, could support a phased approach similar to the state’s minimum wage schedule, allowing an initial exemption for small businesses that would be reduced and ultimately eliminated over the next several years. But Bobo said there’s not a broad consensus on whether any businesses should be permanently excused from the policy, or what size they should be.

“There are plenty of small businesses who are thriving and shouldn’t struggle to provide paid leave,” she said. “And our coalition believes we need to get to a place where all full-time workers, at the very least, have access to sick days.”

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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.