Millions of California workers are staring down the pandemic with no clear access to an economic safety net if they take time off, a situation that is deepening the state's COVID-19 crisis and galvanizing policymakers to extend sick-leave mandates.
Federal and state measures that required most businesses to offer two weeks of paid leave to recover from the coronavirus, or to quarantine in case of exposure, expired Jan. 1. Golden State employees have since been left with three days of mandated sick leave for any illness, the state minimum, although employers may choose to give more.
With the virus continuing to infect thousands of Californians every week and dangerous variants spreading, the Legislature is set to vote in the coming weeks on whether to reinstate the two-week obligation. That follows weeks of debate in Sacramento that has drawn worker advocates and business groups into unusually broad coalitions, for and against.
The expected vote on a pair of bills now being finalized comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall vote over his handling of the pandemic, especially on school and business closures, and the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout remains slow and uneven.
For many workers, California's current patchwork of laws and regulations offers little protection beyond the three mandatory days. Some exempt small businesses. Others only cover employees who can prove they caught the virus at work. Several offer leave but with diminished pay or none at all — an option few can afford.
Under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, most COVID-19 patients are advised to isolate for at least 10 days after the onset of symptoms, and in severe cases up to 20 days. But workers who can't afford to go without pay will "go to work when they are not feeling well and create outbreaks that affect businesses and customers too," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), a proponent of renewing the two-week leave.
"Community spread can only be kept down if people who are sick stay home," she said.
Assemblyman Heath Flora (R-Ripon) calls two weeks an overreach. "We need to focus on getting our businesses back open before we start putting more burdens on them," he said. "We can't keep sticking it to the very people that keep our society moving."
Sick-leave advocates had hoped an updated federal law would make a new California measure unnecessary. President Biden's original $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package contained a generous mandatory family and medical leave plank of up to 14 weeks. That requirement was left out of the bill moving through Congress as it would not pass muster under budget bill rules.
Only an extension of existing tax credits for employers who voluntarily offer paid leave is part of the bill now under debate in the Senate. The credit, available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, would expire Sept. 30.