California’s additional sick leave for COVID-19 set to end

State law gives CA workers up to two weeks of additional paid sick leave for COVID-19.

CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES – This story was originally posted by CalMatters.

California requires employers to grant at least three days of paid sick leave each year to full-time workers. But when the pandemic struck, that wasn’t enough to cover the 14-day quarantine requirements. Many workers have had to either make themselves sick or take unpaid leave.

So in March 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new law requiring companies with more than 25 employees to offer as much as 80 hours of additional sick leave linked to COVID-19, whether for quarantines or vaccine side effects.

On September 30, the program will end. The state business lobby says it’s about time, as many businesses can’t afford the leave without a federal tax credit that offsets their costs, which also expires. It’s also a relief for some business owners who are struggling to find workers.

But even though California is currently reporting the lowest rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, some worker advocates say it is too early.

The return of students to classrooms means that the end of extra leave could be “a crisis for many working families,” said Katie Waters-Smith, political organization director for the California Work & Family Coalition.

“Parents can’t leave young children at home, so paid sick leave is even more important than usual on two fronts: making sure parents don’t feel pressured to send their sick children home. school and make sure parents can stay home when their children are sent home from exposure without losing their income or wages, ”Waters-Smith said in an email.

Alex Huth, whose 8-year-old son Leo had to stay home after a summer day camp after exposure to COVID-19, said being able to take time off was a big help, with Limited child care options in the Sacramento area where they live. .

Leo’s after-school babysitting program is in his school, so if there’s classroom exposure, the only option is to take more time off work. Huth said even for parents working from home, childcare can be difficult to balance.

“We’re there, but we’re in another room with the door closed,” said Huth, an engineer for the California Air Resources Board. “It’s really about him, and it’s about us, and being able to just say, you know, for those three days I’m a parent and I’m going to be available for my 8 year old… that means a parcel.”

Failure of efforts to extend leave

California’s sick leave law came into effect in 2015. Last year, during the pandemic, an executive order granted food workers additional leave for COVID-related reasons, and a State then extended the leave to non-food employees of large companies. But those requirements expired at the end of 2020.

Under the additional leave program adopted in March, employees are eligible if they cannot work, even remotely, because they are in quarantine or in segregation, caring for a member of family who are, or if they are vaccinated or Side effects. Workers can receive up to $ 511 per day, or a maximum of $ 5,110 in total, with hours accrued retroactively to January 1. Employers who offer the additional leave receive a federal tax credit equal to the worker’s paid leave, including health care costs.

The state does not track the number of employees who used the leave. Independent contractors and employees of small businesses who do not choose to participate are not covered. Some cities and counties have also required additional sick leave for COVID-related reasons.

Newsom’s office said there was no effort to extend COVID sick leave. There were a few unsuccessful attempts to extend sick leave in the Legislature during the last session. Assembly Member Evan Low, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, said the sick leave bill due to the rise in the delta variant of the coronavirus was not ready until the end of the session on September 10.

“I am disappointed that we do not have a bill to extend paid leave to support workers during the pandemic”, Low tweeted. “But we won’t stop trying.”

Assembly Bill 995, drafted by San Diego-area assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, sought to increase 24 hours of paid sick leave to 40 hours.

“Encouraging workers to stay home when they are feeling sick has been particularly critical during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the bill’s analysis indicates. “Some of the worst workplace virus outbreaks have occurred in the food industry, where nationally more than half of its workers cannot take paid sick leave.”

Gonzalez withdrew the bill in June.

In July, three El Super grocery stores in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties were fined more than $ 447,000 after a state investigation found sick workers were asked to come and work until ‘That they receive their test results, even if they showed symptoms, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations. Other employees were denied time off to self-isolate, even though a member of the household tested positive.

“Given the current threat of COVID, it is premature to end additional paid sick leave,” said William Dow, professor of health policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health .

“Unfortunately, we know that without paid sick leave, too many employees risk going to work and exposing others,” he said in an email. “Time off to care for others in quarantine or in COVID-19 isolation is of course also important. “

California would have to shoulder the cost of the federal business tax credit when it expires, he said, or increase the state’s minimum requirement for paid time off to more than three days. “It wouldn’t be as effective as it would encourage employers to discourage the use of sick leave, but it would be better than nothing,” he said.

Linda Centeno, a Los Angeles resident and advocate for the Legal Aid at Work program, had a groundbreaking case of COVID-19 with severe symptoms. The additional sick leave gave her the time she needed to recuperate, as she had not accumulated enough sick leave otherwise.

“I was in desperate need of paid sick leave, and I hate to think that there is someone with similar debilitating pain who has to worry about financial security and paying rent,” he said. she declared.

But with the federal tax credit expiring, California businesses are saying it’s time to let the program end.

In August, the California Chamber of Commerce implored the legislature to avoid any extension of the new law, Senate Bill 95, citing concerns about affordability, as well as the abuse of the leave as employers are banned from asking for medical documents, according to Ashley Hoffman, policy advocate for the chamber.

In addition, Hoffman said, there are a number of other time off programs available in lieu of additional sick leave, including the exclusion pay – which provides employees with regular pay for 10 or more days. they are available for work but must self-quarantine due to exposure at work. They can also take up to eight weeks of paid family leave or workers’ compensation.

“What can a business afford? We heard, for example, of a small business that previously offered other types of benefits. But because of all the other paid time off and sick leave, they had to forgo some of the other benefits, ”Hoffman said. “It can come at the cost of other things, whether it’s that or a business that can allow other people to work. ”

While the law exempts businesses with 25 or fewer employees, small and medium-sized businesses are still struggling to emerge from the COVID recession they have been in for nearly two years, said John Kabateck, California director of the National Federation of Independent. . Business.

“Make no mistake, every worker should have the opportunity and the right to deal with health issues and concerns for himself or his family,” he said. “But the problem we have with the extra time off bill is… it was on top of a stack of generous time off programs that employees can tap into when it comes to COVID. So that’s just one more cost to the fragile owner of a bookstore, restaurant or auto store and more. And at the end of the day, where do these costs come from? ”

The future of sick leave

As the pandemic exposed the health and economic impacts of sick leave policies for workers in different industries, gaps existed long before COVID for employees of small businesses, domestic workers and others.

Between 6.8 million and 19.6 million private sector workers were left without paid sick leave because federal coronavirus law exempted companies with fewer than 50 employees, said the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in Washington, DC, in June 2020.

“Clearly, these loopholes need to be closed, and workers – regardless of race or ethnicity – also need a permanent solution to this basic standard of work,” the institute said.

Martha Garrido, a member of La Colectiva de Mujeres de San Francisco, cleans homes and cares for the elderly on a daily basis. But as a domestic worker, she can’t take time off, Garrido said. If she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid.

“So what I have to do is save money to take time off, either to be able to take care of a family member if they fall ill in an emergency or because I feel sick or have pain in my hands or body because of the work we do without rest, ”she said via a translated statement.

In February, Garrido slipped while working and broke his hand. She had to have a cast for seven weeks. She stayed home for about two weeks, but then returned to work, cleaning the houses with her plaster cast, she said.

Garrido is working with the California Domestic Workers Coalition to push for more equitable leave policies in San Francisco, including a system that makes it easier for people with multiple employers to accumulate and use their leave.

“The COVID 19 pandemic has further shown how domestic workers do not have access to an economic safety net in times of great need. These failures have had devastating effects on domestic workers in California, ”wrote the San Francisco Campaign Coalition. “When these benefits are truly available, domestic workers will be closer to achieving the dignity and respect they deserve.

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