In summary

Here are five compelling reasons California’s leaders must renew supplemental paid sick leave to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

By Laura Stock

Laura Stock is the director of the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley, stock@berkeley.edu.

Ken Jacobs, Special to CalMatters

Ken Jacobs is chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, kjacobs9@berkeley.edu.

Time and time again we hear from public health officials that even as we see the light at the end of the tunnel, everyone must maintain vigilance in adhering to the basics of COVID-19 prevention: masking, social distancing, avoiding crowds, avoiding sharing indoor space with those outside our household and maintaining good hand hygiene. This is sound advice, but it won’t be enough on its own. 

The burden of prevention cannot be successfully carried by individuals alone: we will only succeed if it is shared by governments and employers as well. The federal government and states need to maintain equally simple and basic steps to reduce the spread, one of the most important of which is supplemental paid sick leave.

This pandemic has highlighted the critical connection between worker health and public health. We have seen over and over how outbreaks in workplaces have spread to families and communities. Therefore, it is essential to implement measures that will allow sick workers to stay home. 

Daniela Rodriguez works at a fast food restaurant in the Bay Area where four co-workers have fallen sick since Jan. 1. Some could not work. Some came to work coughing. According to Daniela, her employer says they will not “pay quarantine anymore, so people are working with symptoms. People are going to show up to work because they need to survive, so if they have symptoms, they cannot stay home with their symptoms. This is terrible but it is the truth.”

Both the federal government and the state of California passed supplemental paid sick leave last year, but at the height of the winter surge, on Jan. 1, both emergency measures expired. While Congress wrangles, California must again lead the way and include supplemental paid sick leave in emergency budget measures being considered now. 

California’s current minimum standard for paid sick leave, three days per year, is woefully insufficient, and other measures, such as the exclusion pay in CalOSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard, applies only where there is a work related exposure and the worker is able to work – a benefit  that may fail to reach many workers like Daniela and her colleagues.

There are five compelling reasons California’s leaders must renew supplemental paid sick leave now.

1. The Economy. Many business lobbyists have spoken out against paid sick leave, but economic recovery is one of the compelling reasons we need it. As the economy begins to reopen, we need to be more stringent in preventing spread, not less. Otherwise, we’ll be headed straight for more costly lockdowns.

2. Education. Succeeding in re-opening schools for in-person learning will require taking stronger steps to slow spread elsewhere, primarily at work.

3. Equity. The pandemic has had a vastly disparate impact on Black and Brown families and communities. One of the primary drivers of this inequity is workplace exposure. Middle and upper middle class workers, who are disproportionately white, often have the luxury of working from home, safe and protected from exposure. When they do report to work in person, they are far more likely to have paid time off. Nationally, 25% of private sector workers have no access to paid sick leave, but for lower income workers, that number is 69%. As Daniela pointed out, economically desperate people often feel they have no choice but to work.

4. Efficacy. Paid sick leave is one of the most effective tools in governments’ toolbox. Researchers recently compared jurisdictions with paid sick leave and those without and calculated that in states that newly instituted paid sick leave last year, there was a drop of 400 cases per day, which translates into a 56% reduction. Previous studies found large reductions in flu transmission following the introduction of paid sick leave policies. Few measures work so well.

5. Urgency. Finally, the pandemic is not finished with us. The terrifying surge that is just beginning to subside may be, as some have called it, “the eye of the hurricane.” Some new variants are more transmissible and possibly more virulent, and we may be headed for another major surge.

“Business as usual” when it comes to paid sick leave won’t work in a pandemic. It’s time to extend a clear, strong and unequivocal paid sick safety net to all workers.

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