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California’s COVID Paid Time Off Ends for Low Wage Workers

The law, which ensured employees two weeks of COVID-related paid leave, has expired, forcing many low-wage workers, especially those in agriculture, to choose between their health or their salary.

(TNS) — A California law that provided employees with extended paid time off during the pandemic has expired. That could leave the Central Valley's low-income workers, including those who are employed by the region's agricultural industry, in a vulnerable position in the months ahead, worker advocates said.

Now, advocates are calling for an extension of the law and more robust protections for a workforce that has been disproportionately devastated by the physical, emotional and economic toll of the pandemic. But because the program's federal funding also expired, many employers are opposed to the idea of having to shoulder the costs to keep it running.

"We've been telling legislators that the safety net of COVID-19 emergency protections for paid sick leave are vital for farmworkers," said Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the Delano-based California Farmworker Foundation. "It's something that is needed. It will help them out, drastically, and it will save lives at the end of the day."

California requires employers to provide at least three days of paid sick leave per year. SB 95, which took effect March 29, provided up to 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave. It retroactively applied to eligible employees who missed work due to COVID-19 between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, and covered the two-week period that people sickened with COVID-19 need to quarantine and no longer be infectious.

To qualify for the extended time off, employees in either the public or private sectors must have been employed by a company or organization with more than 25 employees. Workers could use the time off for certain COVID-19 related reasons, including being unable to work due to contracting COVID-19; being required or advised to quarantine; going to vaccination appointments; recovering from the virus' side effects; or taking care of family members with COVID-19.

SB 95 expired late last week, even as the highly infectious Delta variant has swept through the region and spurred an explosion of cases that have overwhelmed hospitals and caused COVID-19 outbreaks within schools.

The most recent surge has left low-wage workers with no option but to stay home and quarantine — either to recover or take care of a child who was exposed to the virus. Without the extended paid leave, Hernandez and other worker advocates fear many workers who cannot afford time off without pay will return to work too soon and potentially infect others. In many other cases, low-income families could also fall into severe poverty or risk losing their homes, he said.

"Right now we're dealing with a Delta surge and we know that the spread continues to happen in rural communities where Latinos make up the majority of the population," Hernandez said. "We need to make sure that this goes at the forefront of the agenda because if not, we are going to have a population that's going to be homeless, that's not gonna be able to provide for their children."

Who Would Pay for Cost of Extending Sick Leave Benefits?

Still, it is unclear if those demands can be met.

With the state ramping up its vaccination efforts, lawmakers were hopeful transmission rates would significantly decrease by the September deadline. The state legislature adjourned for the year on Sept. 10 and no legislation was proposed to extend the law. Gov. Gavin Newsom's office in a statement told The Sacramento Bee he had "nothing further to add" on whether his office will make an effort to extend the leave.

The law's Sept. 30 expiration date coincided with the federal government ending its tax credits for employers that provided the leave, which means employers would have to foot the bill if it were to be extended.

In an Aug. 25 letter to lawmakers, the California Chamber of Commerce voiced its opposition to extending the program, noting that employers "cannot continue to subsidize the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic." Extending it, they said, would "encourage vaccine hesitancy."

"Such an extension would also place the burden of the employees' refusal to get vaccinated on California's struggling businesses by forcing them to provide additional leave because their employees chose to refuse easily accessible vaccination," wrote Ashley Hoffman, the chamber's policy director. "In other words: extending sick leave will burden businesses and potentially incentivize more workers to remain unvaccinated — in direct conflict with California's best interests."

But the Delta variant, which has led to an uptick in breakthrough infections, has had a "disproportionate effect across the state," said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

Regions like the Central Valley, where there is widespread resistance to vaccines and public health orders, are faring much worse than parts of the state with stricter and more robust policies, she said.

"There are some counties like Los Angeles, where they're discussing lifting the mask mandate, and then you have other counties like Kern, where they've called in the National Guard as recently as a few days ago," she said. "We're still not in a place where the state should remove any safety provisions like supplemental paid sick leave because without these state laws, residents — especially those in rural counties — will have nothing to depend on."

What Other Sick Leave Options Are Available?

Though the supplemental paid leave law has expired, workers in some cases could still request pay through the supplemental program if they took unpaid time off due to COVID-19 in 2021, said Frank Polizzi, a spokesperson for the state Department of Industrial Relations. In addition, workers who are taking paid time off through the supplemental program as of Sept. 30 can continue to do so, even if it has extended past the deadline, he said.

And California workers still have other paid leave benefit options, he said.

Those who are exposed to COVID-19 at work can still receive paid sick leave under Cal/ OSHA's emergency temporary standards. These regulations require employers to provide paid exclusion leave to employees who cannot go to work due to a workplace exposure, he said in an email to The Bee. This provision however, does not apply to workers who get COVID-19 outside of the workplace.

Employees who get COVID-19 can also take time off through the state's disability insurance and worker's compensation.

While they're pushing for the expansion of the law, advocates are currently informing workers about the rights they do have and connecting them to existing resources, said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work & Family Coalition.

In addition, they're also ramping up pressure on the state to change its existing paid family leave policy past the three-day mark.

"We are educating people about what they have and it's not enough, so that can be very frustrating," she said. "If anything, we should have learned in this pandemic how incredibly vital it is to know that you can take time off if you're sick and contagious. It really made a difference for people knowing that they had the right when they needed it most."

(c)2021 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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