News →

Richmond’s Top Public Health Official Backs Paid Sick Leave

Man behind podium
Dr. Danny Avula, speaking at a COVID-19 briefing in September. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Advocates for mandatory paid sick leave in Virginia have found an ally in Dr. Danny Avula.

Avula heads the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts and has been leading the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He often joins Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney for weekly updates on the virus’ spread and efforts to contain it, becoming somewhat of a local celebrity in the process. On Tuesday, Avula joined a press conference with advocates from the Virginians For Paid Sick Days Coalition, made up of 25 different organizations. 

Throughout the pandemic, Avula said the Health Districts have seen people without paid sick leave forced to choose between getting tested and quarantining or paying their bills.

“I know there are thousands of people who are not getting tested, who are not picking up the phone when the health department calls, because for them it’s literally life and death,” he said. “Do I not bring home food, income, rent for my family, or do I take this call and know I’m going to have to stay home for ten days.” 

Avula said this choice is particularly tough for the many low-income workers who might not have the opportunity to work from home. That’s been a particular challenge in Richmond where more than 20% of residents live below the poverty line, frustrating efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The majority of our exposures and our outbreaks are happening in our workplace,” Avula said. “So if that segment of frontline workers had the option to take paid sick leave, we’d see drastic reductions in the exposure and the potential for spread happening in those settings.”

Numerous state lawmakers say they’ll propose some version of mandatory paid sick leave when the General Assembly session begins next week. 

Advocates expect Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) will put forward a narrow bill to allow employees who already have sick days to use them to care for family members. Another bill from Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) is expected to require employers to provide five paid sick days to around a dozen categories of full-time essential workers. Neither bill was filed as of Tuesday. 

Kim Bobo, executive director of Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said she’s been working with Guzman to craft the bill. She said there will also be a “hardship provision” to address concerns that sank similar bills in the past

“There are some who have said, ‘How can you even talk about a paid sick day standard in the middle of a pandemic and businesses are hurting,’” she said. “As we know, not all businesses are hurting. In fact, some are thriving in this economy. So we really want to distinguish between those businesses right now.”

For their part, many businesses are split on the issue of paid sick leave in Virginia. 

Buz Grossberg, owner of the Buz and Ned’s barbecue restaurant, said he supports making the benefit mandatory.

“Paid sick leave, for me and for my staff, is just part of a base line that people really need to operate their lives comfortably,” he said.

But Grossberg is at odds with the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business advocacy group that has successfully led previous efforts to kill paid sick leave proposals. 

NFIB Virginia State Director Nicole Riley said nearly half of the 6,000 small businesses her organization represents have lost significant income during the pandemic. She said what small businesses really need right now is some flexibility.

“Imposing something very specific that mandates what [small businesses] have to provide, it can add up and, unfortunately, really could prevent many of them from hiring people back if they’ve had to lay people off,” Riley said. 

Currently, thirteen states and Washington, D.C. mandate some sort of paid sick leave. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Virginia Interfaith Center found 96% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans support mandating employers to provide paid sick days.