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.’”
Now, Orozco is likely to get that money back. The California Legislature passed a bill Monday requiring many companies to give workers up to two weeks of paid time off if they get sick from the coronavirus. The bill is retroactive to Jan. 1, so Orozco could be eligible for backpay for the days she missed when she was sick.
At the start of the pandemic, state and federal laws required most employers to give workers paid time off for the coronavirus. But many of those laws expired as more people got vaccinated and case numbers declined. California’s law expired in September.
Since then, omicron — a more contagious version of the coronavirus — has spread rapidly throughout the world. The variant set a record in California for the average number of new cases and contributed to an increase in hospitalizations, mostly among the unvaccinated population.
Labor unions have been pressing their Democratic allies in the Legislature to renew the state’s sick leave law — culminating in a deal reached last month between Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders. Lawmakers approved the bill Monday and sent it to Newsom, who is expected to sign it into law.
When he does, it will make California 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.
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.
Orozco is a member of Fight for $15, a group advocating for a $15 minimum wage and union rights for fast food workers. She said she wasn’t offered 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 rent. She said the new bill, once signed into law, will allow her to “know 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.
Many Republicans voted against the proposal because of how much it would cost business owners who are already struggling with a pandemic-fueled labor shortage, inflation and disruptions to the supply chain.
Republican Assemblymember Vince Fong of Bakersfield said the bill is a “financial burden that could bankrupt a local store, a local restaurant or a nonprofit that’s barely holding on.”
But Monday’s action wasn’t all bad news for businesses. In 2020, when the pandemic threatened to upend the California’s economy, the Legislature raised taxes on businesses to help avoid a deficit. Those tax increases were scheduled to expire next year. But Monday, lawmakers voted to end them one year early, saving businesses roughly $5.5 billion this year.
The tax cuts and other moves, including letting business owners deduct federal coronavirus grants from their state tax obligations, were key to getting business groups to support the new paid sick leave law. California Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jennifer Barrera said her organization supports the paid sick leave law because it is a “balanced approach to protect both workers and our economy.”
“In some respects this feels like an important turning point in our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Democratic Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris said about ending the tax cuts early.
Still, some Republicans noted the tax cuts won’t benefit all businesses. Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Republican from Fresno, said lawmakers should have offered to reimburse businesses for the cost of the paid sick leave — something he says they could afford to do given the state has an estimated $29 billion surplus, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office .
Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco and chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, said he would “love to see” lawmakers approve money later this year to help businesses pay for their employees’ sick leave.
California’s sick leave measure 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 applies only to companies with 26 or more employees, and it expires Sept. 30.
Also Monday, lawmakers agreed to spend another $1.9 billion on things like coronavirus testing, vaccine distribution and increasing staffing at hospitals. The Newsom administration expects most of that money to be reimbursed by the federal government.
This version corrects that Orozco is a member of a group advocating a $15 minimum wage, not a member of the Service Employees International Union.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.