Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, stands during a moment of prayer in the House of Delegates during the 2020 legislative session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Kate Masters
VM- Virginia workers scored a preliminary victory on Wednesday when a House committee approved two bills on workers’ compensation and paid quarantine leave — both major concerns amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Without paid time off, workers are being asked to choose between their jobs and their family’s health,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, whose legislation would require employers to provide paid leave to any employee who works at least 20 hours a week.
The bill passed the committee on a 13-9 party-line vote with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposed — and against the objections of business organizations who argued the mandate would be too expensive for companies already working to provide time off for their employees.
Paid leave has been a major priority for advocacy groups as coronavirus outbreaks are reported at grocery stores, poultry plants, senior living facilities and other businesses across the state. Supporters, including SEIU Virginia 512, a union representing county employees and home care workers, argued that many public-facing employees aren’t eligible for sick time and put communities at risk if they can’t take time off after potential exposures. The risk has been especially acute for Virginia’s Latino community, who are more likely to work in jobs without paid leave and other benefits.
“One of our community members works in the construction industry and had several workers test positive about a month ago,” said Luis Aguilar, the Virginia state director of CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos and immigrants. “He had to self-quarantine, took home no pay, risked losing his job and earned no income while making the tough decision to stay at home for the protection of others and for his recovery.”
Opponents of the legislation said that the federal government’s first coronavirus response act already mandated paid time off for many employees. But the final bill included significant loopholes, exempting many small and large companies and health care providers.
Guzman’s bill aims to close those gaps at the state level, requiring almost all employers to provide two weeks of paid quarantine leave for workers who test positive for COVID-19. The bill would extend paid time off for employees who needed to get tested or self-quarantine after a potential exposure. Workers could also take leave to care for family members who tested positive or were required to quarantine.
“We could talk about some of those localities that are going to have in-person classes,” Guzman said. “If a child gets the coronavirus, as a parent, it’s going to be extremely sad that the child would have to isolate. And as a mom, I would need to keep an eye on that child while they’re at home.”
But the future of the bill is still far from certain. Before it’s heard by the General Assembly, the legislation will go before the House Appropriations Committee to assess its fiscal impact. Guzman has submitted two budget amendments as the state reworks its biennial spending plan to account for a $2.7 billion shortfall. One would fund additional investigators at the Department of Labor and Industry to look into reported violations of the legislation — a cost of $412,184 over the next two years.
The other would authorize Gov. Ralph Northam to direct federal CARES Act dollars toward a grant program for businesses offering paid leave. It’s unclear if either amendment will pass. And State Director Nicole Riley of the National Federation of Independent Business said the grant funding still wouldn’t be enough to help small businesses cover the cost.
“It only sets aside 20 percent for the Rebuild Virginia grant program” — an economic recovery fund for business with fewer than 25 employees — she added. “And by the way, that fund prohibits any business that got federal or local grants from even applying. So, any type of assistance for small businesses, frankly, is way too limited.”
Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, received more bipartisan committee support for his bill, which would make it easier for many frontline employees to claim worker’s compensation for contracting COVID-19 on the job. Unlike similar legislation in the Senate, Jones’ includes protections for health care workers and school board employees — which he said would include K-12 teachers — in addition to law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders.
Eligibility for workers’ compensation has been a major concern for educators as districts consider their reopening plans. Ten of the state’s local school divisions reopened with in-person classes, and another 54 have plans that involve at least some face-to-face instruction, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
In July, the state’s largest school insurer said teachers would be unlikely to qualify for COVID-related workers’ compensation under current Virginia law, which classifies the virus as an “ordinary disease of life” rather than one with an elevated risk for certain professions.
Jones’ bill passed 18-4 — with most Republicans joining Democrats to support the bill — against opponents including the Virginia School Boards Association, which argued the cost would be too high for local districts. “It goes a bit too far,” said J.T. Kessler, a lobbyist for the association. “This bill would put legal and administrative burdens on our school districts. It would be too much for us to handle.”
Education advocates said that the number of claims would be low if schools reopened safely and provided proper protective materials and sanitation. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association also asked committee members to address several of their concerns with the bill, including language that would allow employees to retroactively claim benefits dating back to the beginning of the year.
But supporters argued that many essential workers would be ineligible for benefits without a change to state code. “What our members have seen is denial after denial of benefits for those who are on the front lines of this pandemic,” said Mark Dix, a personal injury attorney and board member for the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, which worked with first responders to help craft the bill.
Wesley Marshall, a commissioner for the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, testified that the state had received roughly 500 claims from workers who had contracted COVID-19 as of last week. Roughly 50 of those cases were voluntarily accepted by employers or their insurance companies and about 60 to 70 were initially denied.
Jones’ bill was also referred to the Appropriations committee for further discussion. Marshall said it was still too early for the commission to estimate the benefits paid out for COVID-19-related claims, and the state’s Department of Planning and Budget also determined that the fiscal impact couldn’t yet be projected. But individual localities have claimed potential fiscal impacts of anywhere from $0 to $5.5 million, according to a report from the General Assembly’s Commission on Local Government.
Jones has also filed a budget amendment for $200,000 over the next two years to help state agencies pay for the bill.