Paid sick leave bill passes Virginia House, clearing the way for Senate debate

A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of protecting poultry processing plant workers from COVID-19. (Legal Aid Justice Center)

A bill that would guarantee paid sick leave to essential employees passed the Virginia House of Delegates Thursday.

But the measure, patroned by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, faces a harder path in the Senate, where bipartisan opposition has squashed previous versions of the bill. Senators tabled similar legislation during the General Assembly’s nearly three-month-long special session, arguing the bill would hurt small employers already struggling with a pandemic-related drop in business.

Supporters and advocates have consistently highlighted the urgency for paid sick leave as communities of color — where residents are often more likely to work in frontline industries — bear a disproportionate of COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. While opponents say most businesses already provide the benefit, data shows that only a third of service industry workers have access to paid days off — even at the state’s largest employers.

“That’s why we’ve been introducing this legislation every year,” Guzmán said before Thursday’s floor vote. “I don’t think it’s right that Virginians have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”

The current iteration of the bill takes a more targeted approach than earlier versions, focusing specifically on providing the benefit to frontline employees. The legislation would require employers with 25 or more employees to provide at least one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. The mandate would extend only to “essential workers” scheduled at least 20 hours a week. The legislation defines “essential workers” as a broad category including first responders, child care providers, home health workers and domestic workers, as well as employees of any “essential retail business” outlined in Northam’s emergency order. The paid sick days could be used for an employee to care for their own physical or mental illness, or to take care of a family member who is sick.

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)

Paid sick leave would be capped at 40 hours a year unless an employer chose to expand that threshold.

Unlike the legislation Guzmán filed during the special session — which would have expired on July 1, 2021, or whenever Gov. Ralph Northam repealed his COVID-19 state of emergency — the requirements would be permanent.

In a concession to businesses, the bill also includes a “hardship waiver” for employers who could prove that the requirements threatened their financial viability or created “a significant negative financial impact.”

But it didn’t sweeten the bill enough for its largely Republican opponents in the House. One Democrat — Del. Nancy Guy, D-Virginia Beach — joined GOP members in voting against the measure.

“This bill is, I know, very well-intentioned,” said Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt. “But it’s going to cause confusion for many small businesses. And furthermore, it will increase the cost of labor for the businesses affected.”

While the bill’s effect on small businesses has been a central point of contention, other legislators have been quietly concerned about its potential fiscal impact for the state. Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services has estimated it would cost roughly $5.8 million to provide paid sick leave to home care attendants funded through the state’s Medicaid program. A financial impact statement also estimates it would cost just over $1 million in the first year — and $630,000 a year after that — to update and maintain billing systems.

It’s still far less than the anticipated fiscal impact of earlier versions of the bill that guaranteed two weeks of paid sick leave for all employees in Virginia working at least 20 hours a week. DMAS previously estimated that it would cost the state nearly $60 million over two years.

Correction: The original story misidentified the Democratic legislator who voted against the bill in the House. It was Del. Nancy Guy, D-Virginia Beach, not Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun.