Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP, Pool)

Commerce and Labor Committee agrees to table the bill indefinitely with a nearly unanimous vote.

RICHMOND-Anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 faces at least two weeks in quarantine. For some, it’s not a problem, as they can work from home. Others either use sick days or take unpaid leave, as their jobs can’t be done remotely. Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) proposed an alternative in this special session of the General Assembly. HB5116 required employers with more than 25 employees to provide two weeks of paid leave in certain cases. 

The bill passed the Virginia House last week, but died Wednesday in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee by an overwhelming 14-1 vote. 

Only employees who worked at least 20 hours a week qualified for the bill. If they had COVID-19 or took care of a family member who did, the employee would have been allowed to use days from a two-week “quarantine leave,” rather than use up sick days. This didn’t apply to all companies. Under the bill, state agencies didn’t have to give the two-week leave, unless federal emergency funding paid for it. 

Questions about money eventually ended up killing the bill in the Senate. Lawmakers and business organizations argued that employers couldn’t afford the cost during a pandemic. 

“Small businesses are already facing pandemic-related financial burdens and restrictions,” said Nicole Riley, the Virginia director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “The last thing they needed is another government mandate that would add costs and reduce their flexibility.” 

Riley argued that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, especially right now. 

“Small businesses are facing huge operational challenges right now, but they do care about their employees and want to do all they can to assist those impacted by COVID-19,” she said in a statement. “Each business is different and they need to figure out their own best solution.” 

Lawmakers Argue Over Quarantine Guidelines

In a statement sent to media and posted on her Twitter feed, Guzman argued the bill addressed many of the concerns raised. For example, the quarantine bill only applied to companies with 25 or more employees. That means small businesses would be exempt. It also only applied to employees who work 20 hours or more a week, further shrinking the list of companies. 

“I significantly pared down the bill to apply only to people with COVID-19,” Guzman said. “There is a sunset [clause]. [It has] an exemption for small businesses. There is an exemption for certain workers to minimize the fiscal impact to the state. I did all this to get a bill that would pass and at least help some people.” 

She argued the bill would have saved lives, especially for families on the lower end of the income spectrum. 

“When I first came to this country as a single mother with $300 to my name, I worked three minimum-wage jobs with no benefits and sometimes had to leave my sick child home so that I could make rent,” Guzman said. “Black and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by this disease in part because many are frontline workers with no benefits who can’t afford to stay home. I never again want to hear any elected official brag that Virginia is number one for business when today’s vote proves we are still last for workers.”

Guzman also pointed to a poll released Sept. 4 from YouGov. The group found 83% of Virginians support a paid sick day standard. That includes 96% of Democrats, 78% of Independents and 72% of Republicans. It showed that people across the board wanted this, she said. 

‘Not The Right Time’ 

Both Democrats and Republicans in the committee raised concerns about giving business owners another cost to deal with right now. Sen. Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) called the idea “insensitive” while others stayed quiet, simply choosing to vote no. 

The official term for what happened Wednesday is a vote to “pass by indefinitely.” It means the bill stays in Commerce and Labor. It could be brought up in another session if committee members chose to do so, but based on the nearly unanimous vote to table it, that seems unlikely.