WHEN THE Virginia General Assembly convenes virtually on Jan. 13 for the beginning of its 30-day “short session,” mandatory paid sick leave will once again be on the agenda. But the issue failed to make traction last year for the same reason it should be rejected again this year: Small businesses that are already operating on the edge due to the pandemic simply cannot afford it.
During the 2020 regular legislative session, the Virginia House of Delegates tabled a bill patroned by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that would have required all public and private employers in the commonwealth with six or more employees to provide at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they worked.
A similar bill patroned by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, that would have applied to businesses with 15 or more employees, including part-time workers, met the same fate in the state Senate.
There’s a good reason the Democrat-controlled General Assembly backed away from mandating paid sick leave. For employees, losing a day’s pay is bad, but losing a job is much worse. And for many small businesses in Virginia that are financially sick due to pandemic lockdowns, mandatory paid sick leave would force them to lay people off.
“Such a one-size-fits-all mandate will make it especially difficult for small businesses with fewer employees to operate, especially when many are struggling to recover economically,” explained Nicole Riley, Virginia state director of The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
“Small business owners need a flexible workplace and the ability to make decisions that allow them to operate with the employees they have,” Riley added. “They know the challenges of finding and keeping good employees and offer the highest wages and best benefits packages they can afford. But a cookie-cutter approach to paid leave makes it exceptionally difficult when every small business is different.”
According to the PEW Research Center, most Americans already have paid sick leave as one of the benefits of employment: 91 percent of public sector workers and nearly three quarters of full-time private sector workers (73 percent) are covered.
Things are different at the bottom of the wage scale. Only 27 percent of food service and child care workers have paid sick leave. However, these workers are also the most likely to work for small companies that are the least able to afford it.
Paid sick leave is only mandatory in a handful of states clustered on the East and West coasts because a large majority of employers, both public and private, offer it voluntarily as a way to attract and keep good employees.
It’s not good public policy to change what’s already working well for a large majority in order to fix a problem that affects a minority of workers. Instead of another government mandate, lawmakers should incentivize small businesses to allow employees who are sick to stay home, or to take care of sick family members, without jeopardizing their job or forgoing a day’s wages.
The easiest way to do this is to provide a state tax credit that allows small businesses to offer paid sick leave as a benefit without costing them anything. They would still have to find some way to get the necessary work done, so the tax credit should be generous enough to cover the costs of overtime for employees who have to stay late to pick up the slack.
It is in a company’s best interest to allow sick employees to stay home and recover before they infect customers or co-workers. It is also in the state’s best interest to reduce the spread of infection as a public health issue. But it is in nobody’s interest, least of all lower-income workers themselves, to force an unaffordable mandate on small businesses that results in fewer jobs.
Instead of a harsh financial penalty for non-compliance, the General Assembly should use the money it would have spent enforcing the mandate to provide funding for small businesses that start offering their employees paid sick leave. Lawmakers will likely get a lot more cooperation—and much better results—if they try the carrot approach instead of the stick.