By Cameron Jones
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Lawmakers unanimously shot down legislation this week that would have required employers to provide hazard pay to essential employees and provide protective equipment in the event of a stay-at-home order.
Del. Hala S. Ayala, D-Woodbridge, said she introduced House Bill 2015 to help protect and further compensate employees required to work during a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order.
The measure required that employers authorized to remain open must pay 1.5 times the regular rate of pay for hours worked during a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. Employers who failed to comply with the bill would be subject to civil penalties not exceeding $1,000 for each violation. A substitute for the bill defined essential employees as healthcare, homecare, airport, transit driver and essential retail workers. The substitute excluded restaurant workers.
“These workers are out there every day putting their lives on the line,” Ayala said. “Whether they’re health care workers or whether they’re grocery store workers, we need to take care of them.”
Ayala also said that a majority of the frontline workers are from minority communities. She said she believes this measure would even the playing field for those who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Business owners testified before a House committee that the increase in pay would lead to a cut in jobs. Airline workers also voiced concerns that such a measure would guarantee furlough.
“We included airport workers because they have also been disproportionately affected by COVID,” Ayala said. “The health threats they face are just as real now as they were at the beginning of this pandemic.”
During the bill’s hearing in the Committee on Appropriations, multiple lawmakers noted that the bill would have tremendous potential to derail the budget.
The Department of Labor and Industry, or DOLI, forecast that several state agencies would see multi-million dollar monthly increases, according to the bill’s impact statement. DOLI also anticipated that new staff would need to be added to investigate claims.
Appropriations determined that the bill’s fiscal impact was too considerable amid other priorities and voted the measure down 21-0.
The bill stalled amid a House push for other progressive labor laws. A bill by Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman, D-Woodbridge, to provide paid sick leave to essential workers advanced to the House this week. It is the delegate’s fourth push for such employee protections.
A recent survey of state resident priorities released by the Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership found that worker’s rights have gained momentum. The center reported that 88% of residents support a minimum of five paid sick days a year.
Stephen Farnsworth, director at the Center for Leadership & Media Studies for the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said in an email that he believes more progressive changes will eventually come.
“The economic and health care crises we are dealing with in Virginia are putting the brakes on some of the new ideas offered by some of the newer members,” Farnsworth said. “Post-pandemic, some of these issues may have better luck.”
Farnsworth added that as more progressive candidates are elected, there will be more debate between more recently elected candidates and the more long-standing members. This debate among members is going to delay policy, but more progressive policy should be advanced in time, he said.
“While I am disappointed that this bill did not pass, I am proud to have patroned an important piece of legislation that would have helped Virginia workers throughout the COVID pandemic, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on passing other legislation to provide relief to our small businesses and working families,” Ayala said in an email.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
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