‘Things we cannot support’: Advocates back away from quarantine leave bill after major changes

‘Things we cannot support’: Advocates back away from quarantine leave bill after major changes
Customers sit on the patio for lunch at Mellow Mushroom in Henrico, Va., May 16, 2020. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

The future of quarantine leave for some of Virginia’s most vulnerable workers is uncertain after a House of Delegates committee made major changes to a bill that would have mandated it for any employee without paid time off.

The original legislation, filed by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, would have required almost all employers to offer at least two weeks of paid leave to any employee working “on average at least 20 hours a week,” according to the language of the bill. Employees could take leave not only if they were exposed or tested positive for COVID-19, but to care for family members who needed to quarantine.

“Without paid time off, workers are being asked to choose between their jobs and their family’s health,” Guzmán said last month when the bill first passed through the House Labor and Commerce committee. But last week, the House Appropriations Committee passed an amended version of the legislation — developed by committee staff — that would sharply limit the number of workers eligible for the new protections.

Now, some of the strongest advocates for the bill are reconsidering their support. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, a faith-based advocacy coalition, is not supporting the committee substitute, Policy and Campaigns Director Ben Hoyne said in a phone interview on Friday. Virginia AFL-CIO, a union representing more than 320,000 workers, supported Guzmán’s original bill but is not taking a position on the amended version, communications director Destiny LeVere said Tuesday.

The same is true for CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and immigrant residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

“It seems to me that the legislature is completely disconnected from the lived reality of workers,” said CASA’s Virginia director, Luis Aguilar, in an interview on Tuesday. “The amendments, and the fact that the bill has been weakened, sends a very strong message to the workers themselves.”

Some of the biggest concerns revolve around which workers would be eligible for paid leave under the committee substitute. Guzmán’s legislation defined “eligible employee” as any Virginian working 20 hours or more a week. But the new version that passed through House Appropriations last week defines an eligible employee as anyone working 20 hours or more a week who is already eligible for benefits.

In practice, that means the legislation would exclude any worker who isn’t already receiving some form of employer-provided protection such as health insurance or paid time off — an amendment that puzzled many of the bill’s former supporters.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.