A restaurant employee has his temperature taken before beginning his shift.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

COVID-19 sick pay in California would return under deal between Newsom, lawmakers

California officials hope the return of state-mandated COVID-19 sick pay will encourage infected workers at businesses employing 26 or more employees to stay home and help slow transmission.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers reached an agreement Tuesday to again require employers to provide workers with up to two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave to recover from COVID-19 or care for a family member with the virus.

The legislation, which lawmakers would likely fast-track to the governor in the coming weeks, would apply to all businesses with 26 or more employees. A similar law from 2021 that provided 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave expired Sept. 30.

Labor unions pushed the new proposal at the Capitol as California grapples with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. State officials hope the deal, which could also boost early budget funding for COVID-19 response, will encourage workers with the virus to stay home and help slow transmission.

Companies across California would have to absorb the costs of additional paid time off for workers. In an attempt to help some businesses, the agreement includes separate proposals to restore tax credits that were suspended and capped two years ago when state officials feared the pandemic would cause California’s economy to collapse.

“By extending sick leave to frontline workers with COVID and providing support for California businesses, we can help protect the health of our workforce, while also ensuring that businesses and our economy are able to thrive,” Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins said in a statement. “We will continue to work to address additional needs of small businesses through the budget — they are the backbone of our communities and continue to be impacted by COVID-19.”

The proposal would require employers to provide up to 40 hours of flexible paid leave to full-time workers who are sick or caring for an ill loved one, and require proof of a positive test to qualify for an additional 40 hours of paid time off. Part-time workers would be eligible for sick leave equal to the number of hours they typically work in a week or twice that amount with a positive test.

Under the deal agreed upon Tuesday, the sick leave would be retroactive to cover coronavirus-related absences since Jan. 1 and extends until Sept. 30. That provision is likely to be particularly helpful for workers since cases linked to the Omicron variant have surged over the past several weeks, prompting increased interest in ensuring that sick employees are able to take time off.

Last year’s paid leave plan did not require a positive test to use all of the benefit. When it expired in September, workers were left with a state minimum of three paid sick days.

With the latest COVID-19 variant rampaging through California, how risky is it to go in to work? When is it safe for...

Labor groups have been lobbying to add back additional days for this year, arguing that three days is not enough time to recover or quarantine and forces lower-wage workers to chose between going to work sick or falling behind on paying bills.

“From the first day of this pandemic, working people have been on the frontlines protecting our families, communities and economy,” said Art Pulaski, executive-secretary treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “Paid sick leave is one of the most potent weapons we have in the arsenal to protect these brave workers and slow the spread of this deadly disease.”

The paid time off also allows parents to stay home when their children are sent home from school due to illness or after being exposed to COVID-19. The Omicron variant has been spreading rapidly through schools over the past three weeks after students returned from winter break.

Employees could use up to three days of the sick leave to attend a vaccination appointment for themselves or a family member and to recover from any symptoms after vaccination, a provision intended to make it easier for parents to immunize their children against the virus.

Workers in the state first qualified for an additional two weeks of COVID-19-related sick leave in 2020 through a combination of state and federal laws and tax credits. Last year, California extended the 80 hours of sick leave for businesses with 26 or more employees.

“This supplemental paid leave is what has allowed workers to stay home while sick and keep sick children at home without having to worry about being fired or losing their income,” said Katherine Wutchiett, a staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco.

A woman prepares a to-go order at a bakery
(Martin do Nascimento / CalMatters)

During the first two years, workers in the state did not have to show a doctor’s note or positive COVID-19 test result in order to access paid leave, which Wutchiett said allowed for necessary flexibility during the pandemic.

“People need COVID leave for so many reasons right now — for themselves, for vaccination, or to care for kids who are sent home following an exposure or school closure,” she said.

Business interests at the Capitol lobbied for the requirement of a positive test to qualify for 40 additional hours as insurance that workers cannot take more time than they need. The test could be taken by the worker or a family member in their care.

The agreement between lawmakers and the governor includes several proposals Newsom introduced earlier this month in his 2022-2023 budget plan that might help some businesses as they shoulder the cost of providing sick leave to workers.

The agreement would restore net operating loss deductions for corporate and individual taxpayers with business income of $1 million or more, which had been paused for tax years 2020, 2021 and 2022 and extended by three years. The state would also lift a $5-million limit on several other business tax credits for those same tax years.

The governor’s budget also calls for tax conformity with federal grant programs that helped keep restaurants afloat during the pandemic and provided assistance to venues that were forced to shutter.

Lawmakers agreed to another Newsom budget proposal that called for the state to quickly authorize $1.4 billion for testing, vaccinations and COVID-19 response in state prisons. Newsom’s advisors said the governor is also asking the Legislature to increase that funding by $400 million and authorize another $600 million for COVID-19 response as needed.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.