Will COVID sick leave return to California?
By Sameea Kamal | CalMatters
Labor unions and their Democratic allies in the Legislature want to bring back extra paid sick leave for COVID-19. Gov. Gavin Newsom is also proposing to revive supplemental leave in his budget.
But as with so much else in the pandemic, it’s not a simple proposition.
There’s opposition from powerful business groups. And key details of the leave still must be worked out, including whether companies would get any help to offset their costs.
Under the state law in effect from last March until Newsom and the Legislature let it expire Sept. 30, any employer with more than 25 workers was required to offer as much as 80 hours of leave for quarantines or vaccine side effects. Employees received as much as $511 a day, or a maximum of $5,110 total, with hours accrued retroactively to Jan. 1, 2021.
The California Labor Federation made clear Thursday it wants a one-year extension of the additional paid leave, which would be three months longer than it was in effect in 2021.
Last year, the supplemental leave – on top of the minimum three days of paid sick leave a year that all employees get – was funded by a federal tax credit equal to a worker’s paid time off, including any health care costs. That credit also expired Sept. 30. The state law didn’t contain a provision to reimburse businesses – and it’s not in Newsom’s proposed budget, or in his emergency $1.4 billion request for COVID response.
Ashley Hoffman, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce, said her group continues to have concerns about the costs to business – and raised the argument that paid sick leave encourages workers not to get vaccinated.
“Businesses are already doing a lot to help fight the pandemic. There’s been a lot of mandates through Cal/OSHA,” she told CalMatters. “There’s this general issue of: How much does the business community have to continue to subsidize those workers who are choosing to continue to be unvaccinated? That seems to cut against the state’s message to get vaccinated.”
The governor’s office said it would not comment on that argument, or whether any aid for businesses is under consideration.
“We’re working with the Legislature to craft a policy that meets the needs of 2022 – which are different than 2021’s, given new and revised information about science and vaccines,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for Newsom’s finance department.
In voicing his support for renewing the leave, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon suggested he would be open to aiding some employers. “In the absence of new federal funding to assist small businesses with COVID sick leave requirements, I support augmenting the Governor’s budget to add state funding for this purpose, and we have already had a productive discussion on this,” Rendon said in a statement.
In 2022, the omicron surge – with California now reporting nearly 60,000 coronavirus cases a day – is causing staffing shortages in health care and other essential workplaces.
Federal guidelines, endorsed by state health officials, recommend that anyone, regardless of vaccination status, should quarantine for 5 days if they test positive. On Saturday, however, in response to the staffing issues, the state made an exception for some asymptomatic health care workers until Feb. 1.
“We believe it’s important to value those workers and provide them sick leave protections,” Newsom said at his budget rollout Monday.
Democratic leaders of the Legislature agree. “We look forward to working out the details and reaching early agreement on this budget action,” Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins told CalMatters.
Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said given the budget surplus, it was the right time to protect workers and help struggling small businesses.
“Workers should not have to make a choice between losing their job or taking care of their health or the health of a loved one. And small businesses, who are the heart of many communities, need support as we move forward with pandemic and economic recovery efforts,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “These efforts are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary. We can do both.”
At a virtual press conference Thursday organized by the labor federation, Carrillo and Sen. Dave Cortese, a Democrat from San Jose, addressed the urgency of the request.
“We have a worker shortage right now. Why would people re-enter the workforce if they’re told that if they contract COVID-19 or the variant of COVID-19, they’re not going to be paid for the time off?” Cortese said. “We’re working against our own interests right now in the state of California and again, we need to correct that immediately.”
The governor’s support came after months of lobbying by unions and public health groups, as well as the Work and Family Coalition, who are urging the Legislature to act swiftly, well before final approval of the budget in June.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council, which represents 180,000 employees in California, is demanding an immediate reinstatement of the two weeks of COVID leave as a “public health imperative.”
“Workers currently have no safety net if they are exposed or sick with COVID-19 just as the virus is breaking new records,” its president, Andrea Zinder, said in a statement.
SEIU California, which has 700,000 members in 17 local unions, is also amping up the pressure on legislators.
“As omicron continues to spread, it is critical that the Administration has signaled its commitment to providing workers supplemental paid sick leave that we need to keep ourselves, our colleagues, our families, our clients and patients, and our communities safe,” union President Bob Schoonover said in a statement.
In response to the chamber’s argument about paid leave discouraging workers from getting vaccinated, SEIU interim Executive Director Tia Orr said employees deserve time off, whatever their vaccination status.
“We used to be called heroes and saints. There were cartoons of us with capes on our backs. Now we’re forced to choose between our bills being paid and the state of public health,” said Rheannon Ramos, a Stater Brothers employee on Thursday’s call.
“As long as California is following the CDC guidelines on quarantine, workers should be paid for the days we’re forced to stay out of our work in order to keep our coworkers and our customers and our employees and our public safe.”
CalMatters health coverage is supported by grants from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Health Care Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation.