All workers need paid sick days, by Sarah Milston

12/3/2020, 6 p.m.
In Virginia, we currently have no law requiring employers to offer paid sick days for their workers. This means that ...

In Virginia, we currently have no law requiring employers to offer paid sick days for their workers. This means that working Virginians aren’t guaranteed the right to earn paid time off based on the hours they work.

As the owner since 2009 of a small business with six employees, I know that policies like these are important to keeping my business open and healthy and, frankly, to retain talented employees. In a small business like mine with so few employees, one sick worker could shut down my office if we all got sick.

I understand the economic fear around paying employees when they aren’t working, but providing paid sick days is an equitable and humane way to approach community health.

When the Virginians for Paid Sick Days coalition reached out to me as a small business owner, I was disheartened to learn that 1.2 million working Virginians currently have no paid sick time. I was even more discouraged by the significant racial disparities in who has access to paid time off. More than 38 percent of African-American workers in the United States have no paid time off and more than 50 percent of Latino workers have no paid time off.

COVID-19 data continues to show us that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. Yet, these are the same workers with the lowest access to paid sick day benefits that would allow them to stay home when they are sick.

There also are troubling socioeconomic disparities. Only 42 percent of service workers have paid sick days, compared to 80 percent of workers in management and professional occupations.

During this pandemic, service workers are on the front lines, while many of us in the professional sector have had the privilege to work from home when needed. And yet service workers are far less likely to have any paid time off to use when they are sick.

Even in a consulting company like mine where conducting business means interacting with other businesses, we all need to implement paid sick days in order for it to work. I can’t afford to have one of my employees come to work sick and potentially infect everyone around them, nor can I afford to have a client who has a sick employee that may infect my team.

I am mindful that all of my employees also are caring for children at home, so paid sick leave days are necessary for businesses to thrive. Without them, we are all putting ourselves at risk when there are workers who may have no other choice but to come to work sick in order to be able to afford their bills.

I was disappointed when our General Assembly did not pass the paid quarantine bill when lawmakers had the opportunity during the special session this summer. A paid sick day bill already had failed to make it out of the General Assembly session earlier this year. But many of us believed that a pandemic would drive our state lawmakers to action. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

We have another opportunity in January when the General Assembly reconvenes for its regular 2021 session to finally pass a long overdue paid sick day standard for our state. Without mandates requiring that employers offer benefits like paid time off, we will not close this gap in an equitable way. Virginia’s workers need a paid sick day standard.

The writer is the founder and chief executive officer of The Spark Mill, a consulting firm based in Richmond.