Paid quarantine leave bill passes Virginia House, heads to Senate for approval

Paid quarantine leave bill passes Virginia House, heads to Senate for approval
Kitchen workers prepare pizzas for carry out orders at Mellow Mushroom in Richmond, Va., May 16, 2020. (Source: Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

In a largely party-line vote Thursday, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would mandate paid quarantine leave for many of the state’s workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislation will head to the Senate for final approval and still requires the governor’s signature if passed by both chambers. But advocates described it as a positive first step amid a public health emergency that’s disproportionately impacted some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including essential workers and communities of color.

“We believe that the best thing for businesses, and for all of us, is to keep workers safe,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which advocated for the bill. “It’s saying that this is a serious issue and that we don’t, as a society, want people to go into work sick.”

For many of the bill’s supporters, it was a hard-won victory after a House committee substantially amended the legislation earlier this week, creating exemptions for businesses with 50 or fewer employees unless they had access to federal grant funding. The substitute bill, drafted by the House Appropriations Committee, also excluded any employee who wasn’t already provided with benefits such as paid time off or health insurance — an amendment that many advocates found troubling.

Bobo said that supporters worked closely with the bill’s sponsor, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, to draft a new version after many advocates withdrew their support for the committee substitute. The end result was something that long-time supporters felt they could live with, particularly during the pandemic, said Luis Aguilar, the state director of CASA — a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and immigrant residents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

“At least for COVID-19, we can move forward,” he added. “Especially right now, something as simple as paid sick leave is a message that the dignity and the lives of workers matter.”

The latest version of the bill removes a previous committee amendment that defined “eligible employees” as anyone working 20 hours or more a week who was already eligible for benefits — language not included in Guzmán’s original version. The bill now applies to any Virginian working 20 hours or more a week, with the exception of certain home care workers funded through the state’s Medicaid program.

The committee’s earlier eligibility language was largely driven by concerns that the state would end up shouldering the cost of providing paid quarantine leave for “consumer-directed” home care attendants — health workers who are selected by Medicaid members and funded by the state’s program — and health care workers from private agencies that receive Medicaid funding. A fiscal impact statement estimated the costs could be more than $60 million over the next two years.

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