Potentially thousands of Sonoma County workers have new rights to remain home and still get paid if they are sick with COVID-19 – or have to care for a senior family member or a child.
County supervisors on Tuesday passed a sick leave ordinance that labor advocates have campaigned for since March. It was the second big victory for labor in a month; Santa Rosa passed a similar ordinance in July.
However, like so much associated with coronavirus, the new ordinance’s future is uncertain beyond the end of this year, when it sunsets. The cost to small businesses in particular is also unknown.
The ordinance applies to employees at about 12,000 businesses in unincorporated Sonoma County, including 275 that have more than 500 employees nationwide, according to county staff reports.
Under the ordinance, those businesses must provide at least 80 hours of paid sick leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19 or need to care for a child or senior family member because a school or caregiving facility is closed due to coronavirus. A key last minute amendment on Tuesday also guarantees the rights of health care workers to get leave because of those caregiving circumstances.
“This is huge,” Maddie Hirshfield, political director for the North Bay Labor Council, said after the unanimous, 4-0 vote approving the ordinance (Supervisor David Rabbitt was absent). “These are desperate times.”
The ordinance builds on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or FFCRA, which Congress passed in March and which applied only to companies with fewer than 500 employees – a loophole advocates for the ordinance were dead set on closing. Like the federal act, the ordinance is set to expire on Dec. 31, though it could be extended if the FFCRA is also extended.
Advocates have cast the ordinance as something workers are properly entitled to and as a way to suppress the spread of coronavirus by preventing sick people from transmitting it in the community.
“We need this ordinance for so many reasons, not least of which is flattening the curve,” Hirshfield told supervisors Tuesday.
The ordinance’s language echoes that aim, saying it “will decrease the spread of COVID-19 through interactions with fellow employees or members of the public.”
The big change for county businesses is that the ordinance raises the caps on financial benefits for people taking a leave to care for children or senior family members. The new caps are $511 daily, up from $200, and $5,110 for a two week period, up from $2,000. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees can claim a hardship exemption if it would jeopardize the business to grant someone leave to care for a child.
Business leaders opposed the ordinance, saying they support the idea of paid sick leave but that small businesses simply cannot afford the financial burden that comes with the increased caregiver benefits.
“Our issue is with the fact that government has closed business for five months in total or to a significant degree so there is no money to pay for this,” said Peter Rumble, executive director of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. “Eighty seven percent of Sonoma County businesses are small mom-and-pop employers; they just don’t have the reserve funding available or the revenue coming in to cover an additional cost.”
Government coffers should fund the new expense, Rumble said.
Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, said most workers covered by the ordinance don’t earn enough to hit the caps. Under the federal act, businesses can claim a tax credit to fully offset the cost of COVID-19 related family leave expenses, but it wasn’t clear Tuesday whether those credits applied to the full amount of the new caps.
Originally, under the ordinance, health care employers could deny sick leave to workers who wanted to care for a child or senior member of their family if that organization made the case that it would be short-staffed as a result. However, with changes made Tuesday, health care workers gained the right to take sick leave regardless, as other workers have been entitled to under the federal act.
“We can’t talk about them on one hand as heroes and then on the other hand not treat them the same as other workers in Sonoma County,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
Under the ordinance, employees who have by Tuesday accrued 80 hours of sick leave or 160 hours of paid time off at work would not be eligible for paid sick leave. The ordinance also applies to people working from home.
Other places that have expanded paid sick leave include San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Mateo County.