COVID sick pay restored to California workers under new law

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Wednesday to extend COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave for workers and bolster California’s investments to support small businesses hit hard by the pandemic. 

The signing, at Nido's Backyard outdoor restaurant in Oakland's Jack London Square, follows on the heels of Monday's action by the California Legislature, which passed a bill 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 many people might be eligible for back pay. 

"This is what it looks like when everybody works together and rose in the same directions we're working to address anxieties and concerns and compromise and find a balance that I think strikes a chord with the vast majority of Californians," Newsom said, thanking the politicians and business leaders who flanked the podium. "I'm proud of their hard work and I'm honored to be able to sign these pieces of legislation today."

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.

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.

"California is doing the right thing," said state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). "California is acting and we're getting it done. None of us need to have any worker show up to work and be sick because we are trying to end this pandemic. So [this legislation] allows our good workers to be able to stay home when they need to, to be able to make an appointment to get that vaccination or that booster and to be able to get their kids vaccinated or to be able to stay home with their kids if their kids get sick." 

The sick leave legislation couldn't come a moment too soon.

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. That left many workers sick at home without any pay for up to 10 days. 

SEE ALSO: Who's lifting the indoor Bay Area mask mandate? A county by county breakdown

Labor unions have pressured their Democratic allies in the Legislature to renew the state’s sick leave law — culminating in a deal reached last month between Newsom and legislative leaders.

The signing of the legislation makes 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.

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 from 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."

However, businesses did get some good news this week.

 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.

"We know that the majority of these workers are essential and front line workers, most of whom are low income from marginalized communities and communities of color," said Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo (D- Los Angeles.) "No one should be forced to make the decision of going to work sick or the choice between losing their job or taking care of their health, the health of their child or a loved one. As we continue to work through all the different obstacles that COVID-19 today's bill signing is one of social and moral consciousness because COVID-19 is truly a life or death issue."

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."

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.

Adam Beam from the Associated Press contributed to this report.