Masked workers behind the counter of a McDonald's restaurant. (Photo courtesy Michael Ocampo/Flickr)

A group of labor advocates and state legislators announced a pair of bills Wednesday that would expand emergency paid sick, family and medical leave for essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Assembly Bill 84 and Senate Bill 95 would extend paid leave for food sector and some transportation workers who are unable to work due to a coronavirus outbreak at their place of employment.

Employees at any public or private food business as well as transportation company drivers would be eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave if they get sick or experience symptoms and would also be eligible for leave if they are caring for someone whose school or place of care is closed because of a coronavirus outbreak.

The two bills would extend emergency paid leave through Sept. 30, if approved.

“When people go to work sick, they risk infecting their customers and co-workers. When workers can’t stay home (and) send their sick child to school or day care, it endangers all the children attending and their teachers,” said Katherine Wutchiett, a staff attorney with Legal Aid at Work, a San Francisco-based legal services group for workers.

“This impacts every one of us,” Wutchiett said during a virtual briefing on the two bills.

Food service workers had access to similar paid pandemic-related sick leave last year under state and federal law, but that security only lasted through Dec. 31, 2020.

Federal legislators did not include a mandated sick leave extension in the pandemic relief bill passed at the end of December and state legislators did not take up the issue until now.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also did not include an extension of pandemic-related sick leave in his proposed state budget, which he unveiled last month.

Bartolome Perez, a McDonald’s employee for some 30 years, said during Wednesday’s briefing that the end of pandemic-related paid sick leave forced him and his co-workers to choose between going to work and risking infection or staying home and losing their necessary income.

Perez added that he tested positive for the virus in late December, five days after a co-worker tested positive.

“Unfortunately, because so many of us live with families or are close to our families, we spread the illness, so my wife, kids and grandkids all got sick as well,” Perez said through a translator. “The good thing is that we are not a statistic of deaths, we are a statistic of survivors of COVID-19.”

Wutchiett noted that opponents of extending sick leave argue that it will leave employers vulnerable to lawsuits if the virus breaks out among their employees, but argued that workers have little interest in fighting a court battle against a multi-national corporation like McDonald’s.

“Almost 50,000 Californians have died,” she said. “Workers don’t want to sue; they want to survive and they want to protect their families. Workers need to know that if they need to stay home because of COVID-19, they will be paid and their job will be safe.”

One of the legislators supporting the bills, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said she hoped they could make it to Newsom’s desk in the next two weeks.

“This is not just about workers, this is about the safety of our community and actually protecting small businesses,” she said.