The pandemic has made for an active year in paid-leave policymaking but hardly the landslide victory that advocates of broader worker protections might have hoped.
Within days of California enacting a broader virus-specific paid sick time mandate this month, a committee of the Democratic-majority Virginia Senate voted to sideline a bill that would have required employers to offer paid quarantine leave for workers who are sick or under medical orders to quarantine due to Covid-19.
Also this month, Philadelphia temporarily expanded its paid sick leave mandate to cover gig workers, and Oregon launched a $30 million program offering state-funded payments to virus-affected workers who lack paid leave. In August, Washington Gov.
“We are continuing to see progress” on states and cities expanding paid sick leave, “but certainly there have been setbacks or bills that may not be moving,” said Jared Make, a vice president at A Better Balance, which advocates for paid leave and other pro-worker policies. “It’s a bit of a challenging time legislatively because there are so many legislative bodies that are either out of session or continue to face disruption.”
Covid-19 brought a renewed focus on paid leave among advocates and policymakers, including some recent hints that the business community might be easing its longtime opposition to a national policy on permanent paid leave.
The temporary paid sick leave policy Congress enacted through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act brought pandemic-specific coverage for some, but left significant gaps that more than 30 cities and states have aimed to fill with their own paid-leave laws this year.
Much of the state and local response has come from governments that already had paid sick leave laws on the books and opted to temporarily expand them to account for Covid-19—as in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington state.
Only a few states that didn’t mandate paid leave before the pandemic have enacted new mandates this year. Colorado and New York were two notable expansions of paid-leave mandates, as state lawmakers created a two-pronged policy that included emergency pandemic-specific paid leave plus a permanent paid sick leave program.
Nevada, which doesn’t impose a permanent paid sick leave requirement, created a temporary mandate specific to casino, hotel, and resort workers as part of a broader virus response measure in August.
Virginia Quarantine Leave Fails
The Virginia bill’s defeat was a frustrating loss for state Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D), who sponsored the bill and has sponsored paid sick leave legislation for the past three regular legislative sessions. Her regular-session bill and a companion version in the Senate also failed to get final passage before the state’s legislature adjourned in March, despite the newly Democratic majority in the Virginia House and Senate.
Guzman, like many other supporters of stronger worker protections, has argued for months that the pandemic highlights the need for paid-leave access, particularly for frontline retail, restaurant, and food-sector workers who are disproportionately Black and Latino.
“I see them as the heroes,” she said. “They went to work so that we could eat and so that we could live. If we were serious about stopping the spread of Covid, then we would have passed this bill.”
Concerns about the impact on businesses were key to the defeat of Virginia’s paid quarantine leave bill.
State Sen. Thomas Norment (R), the Senate minority leader, said the bill was insensitive “to the fiscal stress that Virginia businesses are currently experiencing,” as he made a motion for the Senate’s labor committee to indefinitely postpone the bill, effectively killing it for the short special session.
Even with a Democratic majority in the Virginia legislature, Make said it isn’t unusual for state lawmakers to take multiple legislative sessions to agree on a paid-leave plan.
“I’ve come to expect that it often takes multiple attempts to be able to win a comprehensive, equitable, inclusive policy,” Make said. “We’re confident they’ll be able to pass something” in a future Virginia session.
Business Concerns Linger
As the pandemic has heightened awareness of workers’ need for paid leave, it also has heightened business advocates’ sensitivity to new employer mandates.
The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, for example, made its case earlier this month against a virus-inspired paid sick leave expansion days before the Philadelphia City Council voted to pass it.
“COVID-19 remains a historic disruption to the world as we once knew it, with both large and small businesses experiencing unprecedented financial hardships and significantly reduced revenues. Many have had no choice but to shut down permanently,” the Chamber wrote in a comment letter. “Given the tremendous task facing our city, this legislation, although well meaning, could be a complex and costly impediment to recovery.”
The Philadelphia legislation, which Mayor Jim Kenney signed into law Sept. 17, temporarily expands the city’s paid sick time ordinance to cover additional categories of workers during the pandemic, including gig workers such as ride-share and food delivery drivers.
—With reporting assistance from Andrew M. Ballard in Raleigh, N.C.