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California lawmakers set to vote on paid COVID sick leave

In this Aug. 31, 2020, file photo, is the Assembly gallery overlooking a legislative session in Sacramento, Calif.
Hector Amezcua / Associated Press
In this Aug. 31, 2020, file photo, is the Assembly gallery overlooking a legislative session in Sacramento, Calif.

When Crystal Orozco got sick with the coronavirus last month, she missed nearly two weeks’ worth of her salary as a shift leader at a fast food restaurant and had to ask family members for a loan to help pay her rent.

“My check was literally $86,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.’”

Orozco could soon get backpay from her company for the time she was out sick. The California Legislature on Monday is scheduled to vote on a bill that would require most companies to give employees up to two weeks of paid time off if they get sick with the coronavirus — and the proposal would be retroactive to Jan. 1.


At the beginning of the pandemic, state and federal laws required employers to give their workers paid time off if they got sick with the coronavirus. But many of those laws have expired. California's law expired last September.

After the omicron variant of the virus fueled a surge of new cases, labor unions pressured state officials to revive the law and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom reached a deal to do so with legislative leaders.

Orozco, a member of the Service Employees International Union, said she was denied paid time off when she got sick.

At least six of the 16 people who work at her restaurant — more than one-third of the workforce — had coronavirus symptoms or missed work because of the virus, according to a complaint filed by the workers with state and local officials. The complaint is still pending, Orozco said.

Orozco said she and her husband had to skip their car insurance payment and used borrowed money to help pay their rent. If the Legislature approves the law, she said to would allow her to “konw I’m able to pay back my family that let me borrow that money."


“It’s going to help everybody in the same industry (that are) tight on money," she said.

California would become the fourth state to require paid time off for workers who get sick with the coronavirus. Similar mandates are still in effect in Massachusetts, Colorado and New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition, five other states — Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington — have paid sick leave laws that, while not COVID-specific, can be used cover time off from the coronavirus.

Business groups strongly opposed the laws, arguing that the government was forcing employers to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

But in a separate vote, Califonria lawmakers on Monday are expected to approve multiple tax cuts for businesses that will save them about $5.5 billion.

That tax cut was scheduled to happen at the end of this year, but lawmakers will now vote on whether to put it into effect a year early. That move helped win support from business groups, who had previously opposed paid sick-leave laws because they said it would cost employers too much money.

Now, the California Chamber of Commerce said it supports the sick leave proposal because it is “a balanced approach to protect both workers and our economy.”

“Healthy workers and healthy customers are good for business,” said Jennifer Barrera, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce.

California’s sick leave proposal gives workers up to one week of paid time off if they get the coronavirus or are caring for a sick family member. They can get a second week off only if they or their family members test positive. Employers must pay for and provide the test. The proposal only applies to companies with 26 or more employees and it will expire on Sept. 30.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus prompted a sharp increase of new cases and hospitalizations, mostly among the state’s unvaccinated population. The number of cases peaked in January when the state had a seven-day average of more than 118,000 cases, the highest since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations increased, too, but did not surpass previous highs, a sign that the omicron variant was not as severe. Still, Newsom has asked the Legislature for more money to react to the surge.

Last year, lawmakers gave Newsom about $1.7 billion to spend on the virus this year and lawmakers on Monday will vote on whether to give him another $1.9 billion.

The money will pay for things like testing, vaccine distribution and staffing at hospitals.

“That just, I think, proves the point of how much we didn’t know,” when lawmakers approved the budget last year, said Erika Li, chief deputy at the California Department of Finance. “Delta (variant) may have been on the horizon, omicron was not. This is the state’s response to those public health crisis.”