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California Workers Need Seven Paid Sick Days!

Martin J. Bennett

Aug 28, 2023

The COVID-19 crisis exposed the gaps in our social safety net and the weaknesses of our public health infrastructure. Among other discoveries, the pandemic revealed that paid sick leave is essential to protect the health of all California workers.

The COVID-19 crisis exposed the gaps in our social safety net and the weaknesses of our public health infrastructure. Among other discoveries, the pandemic revealed that paid sick leave is essential to protect the health of all California workers.

The state must expand permanent paid sick leave to address the ongoing challenges of COVID, new pandemics, and the inequities experienced by low-wage essential workers. The legislature is now considering SB 616, which would increase the number of guaranteed paid sick days workers can accrue annually from three to seven (at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked). The law would permit workers to bank unused paid sick leave with a cap of 14 days. Employees may use paid sick days for self-care or care for family members, domestic partners, or designated individuals.

COVID-19 and Paid Sick Days

Health Affairs reported that temporary access to ten emergency paid sick days provided by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) enacted in March 2020 helped to ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the spread of the coronavirus. FFCRA emergency paid sick leave for COVID-related reasons boosted self-quarantining and decreased infection rates. The study concluded that states where workers gained new access to guaranteed paid sick leave experienced a drop of confirmed COVID cases by 400 a day per state–or a 56 percent reduction. These findings are consistent with previous studies prior to the pandemic that found a 40 percent decline in flu transmission after states and municipalities approved paid sick leave policies.

The FFCRA emergency paid sick leave expired in December 2020. California enacted emergency paid sick leave in March 2021, but that legislation lapsed in December 2022.

Numerous California cities have paid sick leave laws granting workers five or more annual paid sick days including San Francisco, Emeryville, Oakland, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Berkeley, West Hollywood, and San Diego; in Oakland, workers employed by firms with less than ten employees can earn up to five days of paid sick leave, and employees of large firms can accrue nine days paid sick leave per year.

Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., mandate that all workers accrue guaranteed paid sick leave with the amounts ranging from five to eight days per year. Most of these states approved universal paid sick leave prior to the pandemic.

Why Seven Days Paid Sick Days Now?

The COVID pandemic is far from over, and paid sick leave is essential to address the continuing effects, including long COVID. Three out of four Americans have contracted COVID. A 2022 study by the Brookings Institute found that one in seven working adults between the ages of 18 and 64 experienced long COVID or symptoms persisting for three months or more, including brain fog, chronic joint and muscle pain, shortness of breath, intense fatigue, digestive problems, and numerous mental health conditions. People with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and diabetes were twice as likely to contract long COVID.

In 2022 the Minneapolis Federal Reserve reported that 25 percent of those experiencing long COVID were out of work or worked reduced hours. The Brookings report conservatively estimated that, due to long COVID, 1.1 million full-time equivalent workers were not employed at any given time and another 2.1 million reduced their hours due to the debilitating effects of long COVID, or to care for family members and friends infected with the virus.

Moreover, a record number of Americans developed COVID during the Omicron upsurge last winter though the risk of hospitalization and severe illness has dramatically declined for those vaccinated and boosted. Anti-viral treatment such as Paxlovid has mitigated symptoms and hastened recovery time. However, a new upsurge is quite possible this winter if not annually over the next several years. The CDC recommends those testing positive isolate for at least five days if asymptomatic.

Clearly, three days of paid sick leave is insufficient to address the lingering effects of long COVID and the challenge of more upsurges by COVID subvariants. Nor does three days provide sufficient time for parents to care for sick children who test positive for the virus, are exposed to other contagious illnesses like the flu, or are sent home when their school or day care experiences a pandemic-related disruption.

Low-Wage Essential Workers and Paid Sick Days

One-third of the California workforce are low-wage frontline and essential workers who cannot work from home and in most cases their workplace must remain open during a public health emergency. The majority are women, immigrants, and workers of color employed in the service sector.

Yet paradoxically, low-wage essential workers, particularly those employed in nursing homes, childcare, hospitality, warehouse, home health care, transit, food services, grocery, agriculture, and food processing — are the least likely to have access to paid sick leave. According to the Pew Research Center, only half of the lowest-earning 25 percent of the workforce has access to paid sick leave, while 92 percent in the top quarter earnings have this benefit. For the lowest-earning tenth, only 30 percent have access to paid sick leave.

In addition, Black and Latinx workers are disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage labor market. These workers experienced the highest rates of COVID infections and associated deaths yet only 62 percent of black workers and less than half Latinx workers have access to paid sick leave.

The California Chamber of Commerce opposes SB 616 and claims that legislating seven paid sick days is a “job killer.” However, the facts demonstrate that increasing paid sick leave is good for business, workers, and public health.

Paid Sick Days Benefit Business

 According to a 2010 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), employment grew two times faster than in surrounding counties with no sick leave policy after San Francisco implemented a universal paid sick leave in 2007 granting nine days for workers at large companies and five days for small. Typically, covered workers took just three days per year of paid sick and a quarter took none. Three years after implementation, two-thirds of San Francisco employers supported the policy.

A 2022 Better Balance report claims business benefits because paid sick leave reduces the likelihood that employees will come to work sick and pose health risks for other workers and customers. Workers without paid sick are 1.5 times more likely to work with contagious diseases than those with paid sick. Also, workers without paid sick leave recover more slowly from an illness than those with paid sick. Widespread “presenteeism” or working while sick costs businesses $207 billion annually in decreased productivity.

Connecticut was the first state to implement universal paid sick leave in 2012, mandating five days for all employees. Employers absorbed the increased costs through modest price increases, higher employee productivity, and lower worker turnover—saving on replacement hiring and training costs. The cost to Connecticut employers for paid sick leave was just, on average, 0.19 percent of annual sales tax revenue.

How Workers and Public Health Benefit

California workers and their families will benefit from expanding paid sick leave in multiple ways: First, seven days will enable workers to take time off without undermining their economic security. Better Balance reports that if a low-wage worker without paid sick leave loses three days’ pay because of illness, that is, on average, equivalent to their family’s monthly grocery bill. Second, lost income contributes to housing and food insecurity, mainly because low-income families live paycheck to paycheck. Third, workers without paid sick leave may also risk their job if they stay home to care for themselves or their children. Paid sick leave reduces the probability of job loss by 25 percent. Finally, losing several days’ wages can aggravate mental health and chronic health conditions, and expanded paid sick leave gives workers greater access to preventive care while decreasing the likelihood that workers will put off needed medical care for themselves or their children.

Most importantly, expanding paid sick leave will benefit the entire community and public health. According to Better Balance, workers without paid sick leave are twice as likely to send their sick children to school or daycare than those without. In addition, workers without paid sick leave are less likely to use their regular medical providers and more prone to seek medical care in emergency rooms because they cannot take time off. If all workers nationwide were provided adequate paid sick leave, this would result in $1.1 billion in savings for hospital emergency room costs and taxpayer-funded medical insurance such as Medi-Cal and Medicaid.

The Economic Policy Institute found that in 2017 half of all foodborne illness outbreaks were caused by restaurant employees coming to work when ill. Seventy percent of women fast food workers surveyed responded that they reported to work despite symptoms such as sneezing, diarrhea, fever, and coughing. In 2022 UC San Francisco and Harvard researchers surveyed 6,600 service workers in retail, fast food, grocery, and other industries. Two-thirds responded that they did not call in sick when feeling ill in the months leading up to last winter’s Omicron surge. Loss of pay, short staffing, and threats from supervisors were cited as reasons why workers reported to work.

The Next Pandemic

The new Omicron subvariant EG 5 coronavirus is gaining prominence in California and the nation. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, recently warned, “The threat of another variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains, and the threat of another pathogen emerging with even deadlier potential remains.” He further stated, “We cannot kick this can down the road,” and “If we do not make the changes that must be made, who will? And if we do not make them now, then when?”

To protect essential workers, improve public health, and address the current COVID threat and future pandemics, seven days of paid sick leave is an indispensable tool–when combined with updated vaccines and boosters; adequate personal protective equipment (PPE); widespread access to testing; rigorous enforcement of federal health and safety law; and masking as needed.

The legislature and Governor can honor essential workers this Labor Day by approving seven days of paid sick leave. We should also remember nine in ten workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement have access to paid sick leave. Union workers enjoy protection against employer retaliation if they speak out against workplace health and safety hazards, demand adequate PPE, or utilize contractually provided paid sick leave. Joining a union is the best way for essential workers to gain access to paid sick leave, but all workers, union and non-union, deserve at least seven days guaranteed paid sick leave.

Martin J. Bennett is Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College and a consultant for UNITE HERE Local 2.

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