RICHMOND, Va. -- The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the need for mandatory paid sick days for workers in Virginia, according to a coalition of advocates pushing the Virginia General Assembly to require companies to provide them.
Currently, many businesses voluntarily provide sick leave.
Advocates said more than 1.2 million Virginia workers do not have access to paid sick leave, and a Harvard University study from November found that just one-third of Virginia workers at private service sector businesses can access paid sick leave.
Josh Breire has worked in local restaurants for six years. He said prior to the pandemic, many service industry employees would push through sickness and keep working in order to avoid missing a day of pay.
“Somebody came in sick, told the manager they weren’t feeling good, and the manager was like, ‘well, we don’t have enough people to cover you, so take some medicine and move on.’” Breire said. “When you’re in the restaurant industry, you just have to chug along quite often because a day gone from work could mean no groceries or a late rent payment.”
During the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session, both the House of Delegates and Senate passed versions of a paid sick leave bill, but the legislation died the final day of the session when negotiators could not hammer out the final details.
Multiple lawmakers plan to file legislation again this year, and advocates said the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for the measure even more clear.
Dr. Danny Avula, the Director of the Richmond-Henrico Health Department, said health and economics are “inextricably intertwined.” The pandemic, Dr. Avula said, has shown that many lower income workers choose to not get a COVID-19 test for fear of quarantine.
“They’re not getting tested. If they’re symptomatic, they know what’s going to come if they get tested and they test positive for COVID. They’re going to be held out of work,” he said. “For many of our residents that becomes a very real decision about, ‘am I going to do what’s best for health and quarantine myself for 14 days at the expense of a paycheck and the ability to put food on the table for my family?”
Still, certain business groups argue that during the pandemic, business owners cannot absorb a new government mandated expense during a period of recovery when they need to be nimble. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) said more than 70% of their members already provide some form of sick leave.
“For most businesses, they try their best to accommodate,” said Nicole Riley, the Virginia Director for NFIB. “Fifty percent of our small business owners are seeing 50% or more of revenue loss over last year. That’s pretty significant. Again, it’s a matter of finding balance and allowing that business owner to work with their employees.“
Some local business owners, like Buzz Grossberg of Buzz and Ned’s Real Barbecue and Mike Smith with Midas of Richmond, are backing the push for paid sick leave requirements. Both already provide paid sick days for the employees.
“Anything that can increase the happy scale for restaurant employees, for me, is a good thing,” said Grossberg. He characterizes the cost to his business as “marginal.”
Specifics of legislation are not yet publicly available, but advocates said at least three state legislators plan to file bills.
Opponents of the measure said they hope lawmakers understand the concerns from business owners.
The 2021 Virginia General Assembly session is set to begin January 13.