New COVID sick leave leaves out at least 1 in 4 California workers | News
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On Wednesday, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that requires large California employers to offer workers up to 80 hours of paid sick leave related to COVID-19.
But there’s a catch: The bill, which the Legislative Assembly passed Feb. 7, doesn’t apply to small employers with 25 or fewer workers. This exemption – which California’s COVID-19 sick leave law of 2021 also included – applies to more than 90% of businesses in California and leaves at least one in four workers without access to the new paid leave, according to data from the California Department of Employment Development.
Without additional leave, most workers in California are only legally entitled to three paid sick days. At the start of the pandemic, the federal government reimbursed employers for sick leave related to COVID-19, including small employers. But in September 2021, state law and federal reimbursements for additional paid COVID-19 leave expired.
“State and federal leaders are to blame here for being myopic and not anticipating the need for additional paid leave,” said Kristin Schumacher, senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center.
California Guidelines from the Ministry of Public Health say that workers who are exposed to COVID-19 or who test positive must quarantine or self-isolate for at least five days.
“When people don’t have paid sick leave, they’ll work sick — and that’s a real danger,” said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work and Family Coalition, which advocates for paid vacation policies. This new law is the product of a compromise, she said, and it will end up helping a lot of workers.
But, she said, “Obviously if we’re trying to do this for public health and for the health and well-being of workers and their families, then why would anyone be exempt? Nobody should be exempted.”
“This employee threshold was part of finding a compromise with employer organizations and lawmakers concerned about the economic impact of the pandemic on small businesses,” said Senate Speaker Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, in a press release.
the vast majority of companies in California have four or fewer employees according to data from the California Department of Employment Development. Workers at small companies earn lower wages on average than employees at large companies, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This is concerning because nationally, workers with household incomes below $25,000 were 3.5 times more likely to miss a week of work due to COVID-19 compared to workers with household incomes of $100,000 or more, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
Small businesses have been rocked by closures, staffing issues and supply chain issues. Business plans have been upended with each new wave of the virus, and while companies like Amazon, Apple, Tesla and UPS have seen their stocks soar during the pandemic, profit margins for many small businesses have squeezed.
Larger employers typically have more cash and easier access to credit, so they might have an easier time adjusting to new costs, said David Nelson, director of public policy for the California Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce.
“If the exemption hadn’t been put in place for small businesses, such a mandate would likely have been the death knell for many small businesses, especially small minority businesses,” Nelson said. He estimates that the average Asian-American and Pacific Islander-owned business in California has between four and 12 employees.
But excluding small businesses altogether wasn’t the only option lawmakers had to mitigate the impact.
California will have a Surplus of $21 billion for the coming fiscal year, based on the Newsom administration’s projections. Apparently everyone involved in California state politics has their own idea of how to spend it. That includes small business advocates, who say the state could have reimbursed small business owners for giving workers extra paid sick leave.
“We recognize, especially with another historic budget surplus, that the administration could make this place a lot easier for small business owners,” said Bianca Blomquist, California policy director for advocacy group Small Business Majority.
Other small business groups opposed the law, despite the exemption for small employers.
“Capitol progressives assume employers aren’t doing their part,” and making furloughs available, said John Kabateck, California state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
“California is rich in employee leave programs,” he said, pointing out a listing furlough programs, many of which do not apply to workers exposed to COVID-19, such as time to serve on a jury, or for victims of domestic violence to file restraining orders.
Jim Relles, a florist in Sacramento, is glad the new furlough requirement isn’t affecting his business. It has 19 staff and said it has been difficult to keep up with changing needs during the pandemic. A new paid vacation policy would mean more bookkeeping and another rule to follow.
Small business employees who are exposed to COVID-19 at work have many more protections than workers who are exposed or sick outside of work.
Under California’s COVID-19 working rulesworkers who become ill due to workplace exposure are expected to be sent home with full pay until they are able to return to work. If an employer offers more sick days than the minimum three granted to workers by state law, then they can ask workers to use those extra sick days to quarantine or recuperate.
Workers who are sure they were exposed to COVID-19 outside of work don’t have the same wage protection, but they might be eligible for other programs, like disability insurance. The state has a website to help workers determine what type of leave they are entitled to depending on their situation.
Cassidy of the Work and Family Coalition said she hopes small business owners build paid sick leave for COVID-19 into their budgets: “It really seems like being able to support workers should be a very basic cost of doing business”.