“When I was in a leadership role, it was even worse because I had to tell my employees, if you’re throwing up, go to the bathroom. If you have a fever, just don’t act like it, you know?”
Despite a whirlwind legislative session in Virginia’s General Assembly this year that made changes to everything from gun registration to decriminalizing marijuana, one big progressive issue that didn’t get to the finish line was paid sick leave.
Paid sick leave allows workers to stay home when they are sick for a few days without losing out on pay. In many states, paid sick leave can also be used when an employee has a child or relative that needs help due to illnesses as well. But Virginia has a large population of private-sector workers that have no access to paid time off.
According to the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, 41% or 1.2 million workers in the private sector in Virginia have no paid time off. The situation is worse for low wage earners, who often are forced to choose between taking a sick day and staying home to get better and getting a full paycheck.
“This is a huge crisis,” Kim Bobo, who serves as the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said during a panel discussion. “If they get sick, they then have to make the choice, ‘do I do I feed my family or go to work sick?’”
Bobo explained that Virginia’s lack of paid sick leave also has an impact on schools. Parents who do not have access to paid time off can’t stay home with a sick child and often don’t have other options for childcare.
“Teachers, particularly in low income communities, told us they always have sick kids in school because parents have few choices. And so they send kids to school sick so they can earn money so they can feed them. So we’ve got families having to make these terrible choices,” Bobo said.
Josh Briere is a restaurant worker in Richmond. He has worked in the restaurant industry and without paid time off for the last six years.
Briere explained that there is an additional layer of stress when employees who do not have paid time off get sick: job stability. In the past at chain restaurants, he explained, management was not understanding when employees felt sick and wanted to call out.
“When I was in a leadership role, it was even worse because I had to tell my employees, if you’re throwing up, go to the bathroom. If you have a fever, just don’t act like it, you know?” Briere said.
He also noted that the culture of encouraging workers to go to work even when they are ill is an especially bad practice given the ongoing pandemic.
“From my perspective and the perspective of folks I work with, paid sick days are important because every single day, all over the country you have millions of people going to work sick and that becomes a public health crisis,” Briere said. “That very well could have been a big component to the current crisis we’re in right now.”
Currently, 12 states have paid sick leave including Arizona, California and Washington State. But Virginia still has not been able to pass legislation to make it possible.
Virginia Sen. Barbara Favola has been an advocate for paid sick leave and introduced legislation that would make it possible earlier this year.
“I thought the bill was very reasonable and it was modeled on national data showing us that in fact many children go to school sick because their parents can’t take time off. And those same children are often behind on their vaccination schedules,” Favola said. “We also know that folks who are serving us in close proximity are less likely to have paid sick days which then becomes a public health matter. So what starts as an individual’s problem becomes everybody’s problem.”
The bill would have given full time workers five days of paid sick leave a year and part-time workers would get one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.
“The bill seemed very reasonable to us,” Favola said.
Despite support from workers rights groups the bill didn’t pass the state senate when in mid-March. Favola explained that although the bill was reasonable it was asking for a transformational change.
“I think whenever you try to make a transformational change, which is what this bill was, it was changing the way we do business, folks always think of the worst possible impact the bill could have,” Favola said.
Ironically, as the coronavirus made working more dangerous the federal government passed its own legislation requiring paid time off for workers.
“I think what’s interesting is that in the midst of the pandemic the federal government has stepped in and created a program that frankly is what we probably needed in the first place and it’s way more generous than our Virginia bill was,” Bobo said.
Favola and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy have not given up working on getting paid leave for workers in the state. But, Briere noted “it’s kind of scary to think that when this pandemic is all over there still won’t be a paid sick day standard to protect us.”