October 16, 2021

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California could restore COVID-19 paid sick leave to workers

California workers could get two more weeks of paid sick leave to care for themselves or their loved ones affected by COVID-19, under a proposal introduced by Democratic legislators this week.

If passed, the package would restore a temporary benefit that expired at the end of last year and let more workers stay home to prevent the coronavirus from being spread at workplaces, legislators and labor advocates said.

“Really, it’s a recognition of the hard work that essential workers have had to do while the rest of the society has been able to safely stay at home,” said Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, D-Los Angeles.

The proposal would also cover those driving for ridehailing companies such as Uber and Lyft, which would make California one of the first states to offer a paid sick leave benefit for those gig workers.

But it remains uncertain whether a recently passed initiative that exempts those companies from a state labor law, Proposition 22, would negate the attempt to extend a benefit to gig workers.

A Lyft spokesman referred to representatives for Prop. 22, who did not respond to a request for comment. The spokesman did note that Lyft is providing refundable tax credits for up to 10 days drivers couldn’t work because of COVID-19 related issues.

The proposal faces pushback from businesses, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which on Monday wrote a letter to legislators outlining its opposition because of its potential costs to employers.

Federal COVID-19 rule expired

A combination of state and federal laws passed last year provided most California workers up to 10 days of paid sick leave if they quarantined because of COVID-19 or a government order.

The mandatory program ran out Dec. 31, with federal legislators only choosing to give tax credits to employers who offered paid sick leave on their own.

President Joe Biden’s stimulus proposal includes reinstating the paid sick leave, but it’s uncertain whether Congress will approve it. House Democrats’ stimulus plan, for instance, does not include mandatory paid sick leave.

With the fate of paid sick leave uncertain in Congress, California legislators said it’s imperative for the state to act quickly.

“When workers do not have access to paid sick days, they face a difficult choice between losing pay and going to work sick,” Carrillo and 30 other legislators wrote in their letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom sent Feb. 16.

Under the proposal, workers could take days off if they are unable to work because of COVID-19. They could use the time off to get a vaccine or deal with any of its potential side effects.

Workers could also take the time off to care for someone who is quarantining, isolating or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Finally, the time off could be used to care for an individual whose school or place of care is closed due to COVID-19.

The proposal would apply retroactively starting Jan. 1, meaning those who have already taken the leave could be reimbursed of their pay, said Katherine Wutchiett, a staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.

If companies already offer paid sick leave, whether by choice or by local ordinances, they could use those programs to meet the proposal’s requirement, Wutchiett said.

The proposal, if passed by the Legislature and signed by Newsom, would take effect immediately. The leave would expire Sept. 30 or when the federal leave program — if reinstated — runs out, whichever comes later.

Newsom on Tuesday noted he has supported paid sick leave policies in the past, although he didn’t explicitly say whether he would support this proposal.

Business lobby says it’s too costly

The California Chamber of Commerce is fighting the proposal, contending employers can’t afford “the immediate payroll costs necessary to pay for the 80-hour leave requirement mandated by” the bills,

California should reimburse its businesses for the cost of giving workers paid sick days, Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Ashley Hoffman wrote. Federal tax credits for paid sick days currently last through March 31, although Congress is discussing whether to extend them to Oct. 1.

Hoffman also noted the proposal comes on top of Cal-OSHA’s coronavirus workplace rules, which require employers to pay their workers if they are in self-quarantine.

It’s uncertain how the proposal would apply for gig workers for companies such as Uber, Lyft and Instacart. Carrillo said those workers need to be protected, citing a case in which a DoorDash delivery driver in San Francisco had to leave his children in his car while he was dropping off food because he couldn’t pay for childcare.

“They have no sick leave. They have no vacation time. But they’re risking their lives by trying to go to work during the pandemic,” she said.

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Jeong Park joined The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol Bureau in 2020 as part of the paper’s community-funded Equity Lab. He covers economic inequality, focusing on how the state’s policies affect working people. Before joining the Bee, he worked as a reporter covering cities for the Orange County Register.

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