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State Senate panel defeats paid quarantine leave bill
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State Senate panel defeats paid quarantine leave bill

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RICHMOND — A state Senate panel defeated a bill Wednesday that would have required certain employers to provide paid quarantine leave during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic-controlled Senate Labor and Commerce Committee voted 14-1 to kill House Bill 5116, the final paid sick leave bill that was still moving through the General Assembly.

“This is dangerous to public health and a slap in the face to hardworking Virginians across the commonwealth,” Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement about the defeat.

The same committee shot down a similar bill from Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, a month ago that would have mandated businesses with 21 or more employees to provide two weeks of paid sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic and an extra one week for full-time employees affected directly by the crisis. Both Democrats and Republicans had concerns about there being enough financial support for businesses to bear such costs in a struggling economy.

Following that bill’s defeat, Guzman introduced her own bill to take another crack at paid leave. Her proposal applied to Virginians working at least 20 hours a week. It carved out numerous exemptions, such as for businesses with 50 or fewer employees unless they had access to federal grant funding. It also excluded employees who weren’t already provided with benefits such as paid time off or health insurance.

Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, had numerous concerns about the bill, such as it excluding certain provisions or lacking clear guidance. He said it was possible that a business could hire someone who immediately has to use paid quarantine leave, and then quits the job at the end of the leave period. He also worried about a lack of financial support for employers to cover paid leave.

“This bill is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” Head said last week. “It’s going to raise their expenses for hiring people, and it’s going to end up hurting many of the very people you’re trying to help with this legislation.”

Guzman’s bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates on a nearly party-line vote of 54-44, with one Democrat joining Republicans.

The Senate killed it, citing similar reasons as the ones given about Favola's bill. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, called Guzman’s bill “insensitive” to businesses struggling to survive.

Only a handful of states mandate employers provide their workers with accrued paid sick leave. Lawmakers in other states have been trying to come up with proposals to provide expanded paid sick leave. They’ve similarly come up against the challenges of a volatile economy, uncertain budgets and the usual debate over whether employers should be required to provide paid leave and who should pay for it.

At the federal level, Congress and the White House struck a coronavirus aid deal that includes paid leave provisions. Legislation approved in April requires companies with fewer than 500 workers to give sick or quarantined employees 14 fully paid sick days. The federal government would reimburse employers for the cost of offering leave, but that reimbursement mechanism expires at the end of the year.

A number of human service organizations pushed for the legislation in the General Assembly, saying it was especially important now when many of Virginia’s essential workers are Black and Latino and can’t afford to not work.

Business groups were pleased to see the bill defeated in the Senate, arguing that during a time when many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, a government mandate that would add additional operational costs was not something they should shoulder at this time.

“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,” Nicole Riley, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement. “Each business is different, and they need to figure out their own best solution. Tying their hands behind their back with another one-size-fits-all mandate would have made their economic recovery even more difficult.”

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