In-Depth: Worker's rights advocates call for COVID sick leave to return in California

Asking for 5-10 days of paid leave
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Posted at 6:21 AM, Jan 06, 2022

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - As the omicron variant surges across the state, workers' rights advocates, as well as several California lawmakers, want the State Legislature to bring back COVID sick pay.

"We are facing a surge perhaps like we haven't faced before in this pandemic," says Steve Smith, the Communications Director at the California Labor Federation. "And workers are without any protection in terms of paid sick leave."

Early in the pandemic, California offered every worker ten days of paid leave for COVID-related reasons, whether they were infected, caring for an infected family member, or watching over a child out of school because of COVID-related closures. The federal government covered the cost.

That leave went away when the program expired on Sept. 30, 2021. At the time, Governor Newsom decided not to issue an executive order to renew it, and the legislature didn't pass any new bills to keep it around.

Now, the Labor Federation says workers need it back, especially since the CDC just revised its isolation standards. Now, people who test positive need to spend five days in quarantine, and people exposed to the virus need 5-10 days of isolation.

"We've got a gaping hole in the safety net right now. That's why we need to bring COVID paid sick leave back," says Smith.

Local leaders in San Diego echo that call. On Monday, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher said paid COVID sick leave is the first thing the legislature should approve in their new session.

"We don't want a worker to have to make a choice between their health and feeding their families," Fletcher said. "That is a tool we had in the height of COVID. I think that is an appropriate tool right now."

So far, no lawmaker in Sacramento has reintroduced it as part of a bill. But LA Democratic Assembly-member Wendy Carrillo (D-51) told the website she plans to, and the state can use budget surplus money to pay for it.

She told CalMatters reinstating paid COVID leave is "an opportunity for the governor and for the legislature to ensure that the health of the 40 million people across the state of California is prioritized."

But not everyone thinks it's necessary.

"California offers the most abundant leave programs in the country," says John Kabateck, the California State Director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. The NFIB represents 15,000 small businesses in the state.

"We just think adding one more is another brick in the backpack of small business owners who are struggling to keep the doors open," he says.

Kabateck says California already has more than a dozen other ways for workers to get paid time off. His group just released a study showing 55% of small businesses in California had employees take time off because of COVID. It also found that 72% of small businesses are currently experiencing a staffing shortage.

He says adding more options for paid leave would be too costly.

"Asking a small mom and pop store out there to pay through the nose when they're already dying on the vine is asking a bit too much, and it just adds to their uncertainty," says Kabateck.

The Labor Federation disagrees. They say not having paid COVID sick leave would be just as costly because workers will either show up sick or lose the wages they need to survive.

That's the situation Nelly Gonzalez finds herself in. She tested positive for COVID-19 on Christmas Eve and spent the next ten days in isolation. Her jobs don't offer paid time off, so she's struggled to make ends meet while staying home.

"It's very difficult," she says. "You know, there are bills I have to pay, and I also have to support my family. So if I can't work, I can't support them."

That's why Smith and the Labor Federation say paid COVID leave is essential.

"We're going to see a huge impact not only on the health and safety of workers but on our entire economy, including businesses," he says.