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Coronavirus puts spotlight on paid leave during General Assembly session

Coronavirus puts spotlight on paid leave during General Assembly session

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RICHMOND — When Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act last spring, many employers were required to offer two weeks of paid sick leave to anyone who got sick with COVID-19 or had to quarantine because they’d been exposed, and up to 12 weeks of partially paid family and medical leave for parents who had to stay home with a child whose school or day care closed.

Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly unsuccessfully proposed different forms of family or sick leave last year. There were concerns about the costs to businesses already struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. And some lawmakers raised the point that the federal government had a paid leave provision in place for the pandemic.

Then that federal mandate expired at the end of 2020. And Virginia Democrats are pushing again for paid leave policies, an issue that has gained new urgency with efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“Paid sick leave and paid leave is essential now more than ever to ensure that we can stay safe during COVID, especially because this crisis has really amplified the need to support our workforce,” said Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William.

Variations of earned paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave have been introduced in recent sessions of Virginia’s legislature, but never made it to the governor’s desk. The General Assembly is considered proposals this session.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, is sponsoring a bill requiring Virginia employers to provide certain employees paid sick leave. Employees who are eligible are essential workers who work on average at least 20 hours a week or 90 hours a month.

Ayala and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, are carrying duplicate legislation to set up a paid family and medical leave program. Dels. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, have both signed onto it. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, has introduced a sick leave proposal to care for sick family members.

There is no federal requirement for employers to provide paid family and medical leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act requires eligible employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid family leave.

“We have seen people struggling to make decisions between whether to keep their job or take care of an ill family member,” Boysko said.

The United States does not have national standards on paid family or sick leave. The current system is a patchwork of policies determined by employers, state and local laws, or negotiated through labor contracts.

Paid family and medical leave provides leave for an employee’s serious illness or medical condition, the need to care for a family member, or the need to care for a new child. With earned paid sick leave programs, employees accrue sick leave hours to be used for short-term illnesses. Several states have set up their own systems so that employees receive these types of paid leave.

Under the paid family and medical leave proposal from Ayala and Boysko, employers and employees would split the cost by contributing to a pool that employees would tap into if they need to go on paid leave. All employees would contribute a small payroll deduction. The Virginia Employment Commission would administer this program and set the rate of wages to be split among the employee and employer. The benefit wouldn’t become available until 2024.

The Offices of the Secretary of Commerce and Trade and the Chief Workforce Development Advisor published a report in the fall about how Virginia would run a paid family and medical leave program. The study estimated that financing the program would result in a contribution rate of 0.5% of wages that would be split between employees and employers. For example, an employee earning annual wages of $60,000 would contribute 0.25% of wages, which is about $2.89 per week. The employer would also contribute $2.89 per week.

Advocates for paid leave have tried to involve in the debate more small businesses who support the policy.

Michael Hamlar, owner and president of Hamlar-Curtis Funeral Home and Crematory in Roanoke, said he has about 15 employees — some of whom have been with the business for more than 20 years — and provides them with paid family and medical leave. He said he’s been an advocate for paid leave for years because of the long-term benefits to small businesses.

“We have employees who need to take off,” Hamlar said. “When they take off, we’re talking hip replacements, shoulder surgery, back surgery. When they take off, they get paid, because we want retention.”

Research shows that paid family and medical leave programs are associated with economic benefits including improved employee retention and employee productivity, and greater labor force attachment for women.

But not all small businesses are on board with having to offer paid sick or family leave.

“What our members oppose is a government mandate that assumes every business of any type or size can afford to offer the same benefits as large companies offer their employees,” said Nicole Riley, of the National Federation of Independent Business. “In the long run, if the company can’t sustain such a plan, especially when many small businesses are struggling financially, it will ultimately hurt the workers if the small business can’t manage the requirements.”

While the pandemic has added new urgency to the issue of paid leave, nearly all workers will need to take time off at some point during their careers either for their own health or to care for a family member. Lawmakers supporting this proposal said it’s those making lower wages and women who are more likely to not have access to paid sick or family leave.

“We have to work toward building systems that support every working class member,” Ayala said.

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