By Tara Gibson, David Broder and Michael Cassidy
Since long before the current public health crisis began, families in Virginia have been forced every day to make an impossible choice between their health and their economic security. The commonwealth has no paid family and medical leave policy, which means that when people need to take time off to care for a pressing medical concern or welcome a new child, many are unable to. COVID-19 has shed new light on why this is such an urgent problem for Virginia lawmakers to address.
The pandemic has destroyed the health and financial security of families across the commonwealth. Calls for people to stay home to limit the spread of the virus have drawn attention to the reality that for many people, staying home from work means not being able to cover the bills and provide for their families. Unfortunately, many working people in Virginia lack basic protections to shield them from harm when health emergencies occur.
Low-wage workers and small business employees are especially vulnerable, particularly those who work in the food service, health care and child care sectors. This leaves individuals to face a dangerous situation in which they continually risk their health and the health of others by returning to work each day.
Virginia families and businesses have earned access to policies that protect their health and financial integrity. Recently, the federal government passed several bills to help struggling families. One bill, the Families First Act, established temporary national paid family leave and paid sick days policies to support working people during the pandemic.
While this was an important step in the right direction, it also left too many people behind. The Families First Act exempts businesses with more than 500 employees, leaving those workers without access to the new paid leave programs. And the longer-term paid family leave only is available for parents of children whose school or normal child care has closed.
More needs to be done to ensure these emergency programs are available for all who need them. The pandemic is further proof that Virginia’s working families need a permanent paid leave program. Virginia lawmakers must make state paid family and medical leave their No. 1 priority to ensure that employees do not face the impossible choice between maintaining financial security and caring for themselves or a loved one, a choice that people like Joyce Barnes are all too familiar with.
Barnes is a lifelong nurse and home care provider who lives in Richmond. For three decades, Barnes has cared for older adults and people with disabilities. This past year, she got an infection from a client of hers, and ended up in the hospital for two weeks. She still is struggling to pay off her hospital bill, having gone weeks without a paycheck, because she had no paid leave. Even though Barnes is on the front lines of caring for those most at risk during this pandemic, she still lacks the paid leave needed to keep her, her family and her clients safe.
We already know that a lack of paid family and medical leave presents an incredible financial hardship for people like Barnes. It also contributes to increased employee turnover rates, decreased productivity among workers and increased health care costs for businesses as well as the public. Now we’re seeing that not having paid leave also makes communities less safe when disaster strikes.
During this year’s legislative session, many lawmakers supported a proposal to establish a state paid family and medical leave program. The legislation would have created a program that provided up to 12 weeks of paid leave, covered 80% of a worker’s wages with an annually adjusted cap, and would have been financed through small contributions from employers and employees.
Sadly, this legislation did not pass. But there is a provision in the 2020 budget requiring the governor’s administration to study implementation of this program in Virginia. This is a promising step forward that we must build on.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how vulnerable working families are when health crises occur. Now more than ever, Virginia’s elected officials need to act quickly. Staying at home to remain healthy should not mean the loss of financial security.