CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters.
California requires employers to provide at least three days of paid sick leave each year to full-time workers. But when the pandemic hit, that wasn’t enough to cover 14-day quarantine requirements. Many workers had to either come in sick or take time off without pay.
So in March 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law requiring companies with more than 25 employees to offer as much as 80 hours of supplemental sick leave related to COVID-19, either for quarantines or vaccine side effects.
On Sept. 30, the program is set to end. The state’s business lobby says it’s time, because many companies can’t afford the leave without a federal tax credit that offsets their costs, which is also expiring. It’s also a relief for some business owners struggling to find workers.
But even though California is currently reporting the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the country, some worker advocates say it’s too soon.
The return of students to classrooms means ending the additional leave could be “a crisis for many working families,” said Katie Waters-Smith, political organizing director for the California Work & Family Coalition.
“Parents can’t leave small children at home, so paid sick leave is even more important than usual on two fronts — making sure parents don’t feel like they have to send sick children to school, and making sure that parents can stay home when their children are sent home because of exposure without losing their income or pay,” Waters-Smith said in an email.
Alex Huth, whose 8-year-old son Leo had to stay home from a summer day camp after a COVID-19 exposure, said being able to take time off was a big help, with limited childcare options in the Sacramento area where they live.
Leo’s after-school childcare program is at his school, so if there’s a classroom exposure, the only option is to take more time off work. Huth said even for parents working from home, child care 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 really wears on him, and it wears on us, and being able to just say, you know, for these three days I am a parent and I’m going to be available for my 8-year-old … it means a lot.”
Failed efforts to extend leave
California’s sick leave law took effect in 2015. Last year during the pandemic, an executive order gave food workers supplemental leave for COVID-related reasons, and a state law later extended the leave to non-food employees at large companies. But those requirements expired at the end of 2020.
Under the supplemental leave program passed in March, employees qualify if they are unable to work, even remotely, because they’re in quarantine or isolation, they’re caring for a family member who is, or they’re getting a vaccine or having side effects. Workers can receive as much as $511 a day, or a maximum of $5,110 total, with hours accrued retroactive to Jan. 1. Employers who provide the additional leave receive a federal tax credit equal to the worker’s paid time off, including any healthcare costs.
The state does not track how many employees have used the leave. Independent contractors and employees at smaller businesses that don’t opt in are not covered. Some cities and counties have also required supplemental sick leave for COVID-related reasons.
Newsom’s office said there are no efforts to extend the COVID sick leave. There were a few failed attempts to expand sick leave in the Legislature this past session. Assemblymember Evan Low, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, said draft legislation on sick leave due to the surging delta variant of the coronavirus wasn’t ready before the session ended on Sept. 10.
“I’m disappointed we don’t have a bill to extend paid leave to support workers during the pandemic,” Low tweeted. “But we will not stop trying.”
Assembly Bill 995, authored by San Diego-area Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, sought to increase the 24 hours of paid sick leave to 40 hours.
“Encouraging workers to stay home when they feel sick has been particularly critical during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the bill analysis said. “Some of the worst workplace outbreaks of the virus have occurred in the food sector industry, where on a national level, more than half of its workers cannot take paid sick leave.”
Gonzalez pulled 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 told to come to work until they received their test results, even when they had symptoms, according to the California Department of Industrial Relations. Other employees were denied time off to isolate, even if a household member tested positive.
“Given the ongoing COVID threat, it is premature to sunset the supplemental 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 in the absence of paid sick leave, too many employees will risk going to work and exposing others,” he said in an email. “Leave to care for others in COVID-19 quarantine or isolation is of course important as well.”
California should assume the cost of the federal tax credit for businesses as it expires, he said, or increase the minimum state requirement for paid leave to more than three days. “This would not be as effective because it would incentivize employers to discourage the use of sick leave, but it would be better than nothing,” he said.
Linda Centeno, a Los Angeles resident and program advocate for Legal Aid at Work, had a breakthrough case of COVID-19 with severe symptoms. The supplemental sick leave gave her the time she needed to recover, since she didn’t have enough sick time accrued otherwise.
“I needed desperately to have paid sick leave, and I hate to think that there’s someone out there with a similar amount of debilitating pain that has to worry about financial security and about paying rent,” she said.
But with the expiration of the federal tax credit, businesses in California say 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 over affordability, as well as abuse of the leave since employers are banned from seeking medical documentation, according to Ashley Hoffman, policy advocate for the chamber.
In addition, Hoffman said, there are a number of other leave programs available instead of supplemental sick leave, including exclusion pay — which provides employees regular pay for 10 or more days if they are available to work but must quarantine due to a workplace exposure. They can also take as much as eight weeks of paid family leave, or workers compensation.
“A big part of it is, what can a business afford? We heard, for example, a small business that used to offer other kinds of benefits. But because of all the other paid leave and sick leave, they had to forego some of the other benefits,” Hoffman said. “It can come at the cost of other things, whether it’s that or a business being able to afford other people to work.”
While the law exempts businesses that have 25 or fewer employees, smaller to mid-size firms are still trying to crawl out of the COVID recession they’ve been in for nearly two years, said John Kabateck, California director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
“Make no mistake, every worker should be afforded the ability and right to tend to health challenges and problems for themselves or their families,” he said. “But the problem we have with the supplemental leave bill is… this was being heaped on top of a pile of generous leave programs that employees are able to tap into as it relates to COVID. So this is just one more onerous cost on the fragile corner bookstore, restaurant or auto shop owner and more. And at the end of the day, where do those costs come from?”
The future of sick leave
While the pandemic laid bare the health and economic impacts of sick leave policies for workers in different industries, gaps existed long before COVID for employees in small firms, domestic workers and others.
Between 6.8 million and 19.6 million private-sector workers were left without paid sick days because the federal coronavirus law exempted companies with fewer than 50 employees, the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in Washington, D.C., said in June 2020.
“Obviously, those loopholes need to be closed, and workers — regardless of race or ethnicity — also need a permanent fix to this basic labor standard,” the institute said.
Martha Garrido, a member of La Colectiva de Mujeres de San Francisco, works daily cleaning houses and caring for older adults. 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 some money to take time off, either to be able to take care of a family member if they get sick in an emergency, or because I feel sick or have pain in my hands or body from the work we do without rest,” she said via a translated statement.
In February, Garrido slipped while working and broke her hand. She had to have a cast on for seven weeks. She stayed home for about two weeks, but then she went back to work, cleaning houses with her cast on, she said.
Garrido is working with the California Domestic Workers Coalition to push for more equitable leave policies in San Francisco, including a system making it easier for those with multiple employers to accrue and use their leave.
“The COVID 19 pandemic has further exposed how domestic workers have no access to an economic safety net in times of great need. These failures have had devastating impacts on domestic workers in California,” the coalition wrote for the San Francisco campaign. “When these benefits are truly accessible, domestic workers will be closer to achieving the dignity and respect they deserve.”