California lawmakers stood in the vanguard in 2014 when they mandated that workers be allowed three days of sick pay annually, but more than a dozen other states have since enacted more generous sick leave policies than that one.
Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, said it’s time that California increase the amount of mandated sick time, and she has introduced Senate Bill 616 to get it done. Initially, the measure would have mandated at least seven days of sick pay, but Gonzalez amended the bill last week to say at least five days.
COVID-19 left people unable to work for significant periods, Gonzalez said, and federal and state laws ensured they got the supplemental recovery time and sick pay to avoid infecting co-workers and suffering financial setbacks. Even now, it can take five days or longer for COVID-19 to clear the body, supporters say.
“Families no longer have the temporary protections afforded by COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave, which ended last year,” Gonzalez said. “This back-to-school season, let’s commit to ensuring that parents can take the sick leave they need to take care of their health and the health of their children.”
A coalition of employer groups opposed the legislation, saying that many small businesses are still in survival mode because of financial setbacks they incurred during the pandemic.
“Despite the economic struggles that businesses have faced recently, the number of overlapping leaves has grown over the last few years and continues to grow,” they wrote in letters to legislators. “Some are paid and some are unpaid, but even unpaid leaves increase costs on employers because the employer must either shift the work to other existing employees on short notice, which leads to overtime pay, or be understaffed.”
They also pointed to an estimate from the workforce solution company Circadian that said unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly employee in this state.
Poll: Small business owners support 7 days
In July, though, the Small Business Majority said that its polling on SB 616 found that an overwhelming majority of small business owners, some 85%, support expanding guaranteed annual paid sick days from three days to as many as seven. The organization noted that owners have concerns about their employees’ finances as well as their own.
Kim Robinson, who manages two health clinics in Stockton for Community Medical Centers, said she has long supported SB 616 as a wellness advocate but that she now is facing a sick time challenge at work that has shown her just how crucial this measure is.
Robinson’s employer allows the 56 hours of sick time that SB 616 initially required, she said, and even so, she has struggled to accommodate the demands of caring for not only herself but also an adult child and a parent who both have ongoing medical conditions.
Robinson said she believes her story encapsulates what many workers experience as they try to hold down jobs that provide the income their families need to survive while also trying to care for ailing relatives.
A Community Medical employee for five years, Robinson said she feared the company would fire her for taking excessive time off after her mother’s health deteriorated two years ago. She was running through her sick time and, although her company’s sick leave exceeded the state-mandated time, she knew it wouldn’t be enough last year.
The thing about sick time, she said, is that if you use all those hours up, you have to wait until you can accrue more time before you can take leave. With her mother’s condition, she said, emergencies and unexpected urgent needs had cropped up.
Robinson decided last year that it would probably be best to apply for an intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. If workers have qualifying reasons, and Robinson’s case did, this law entitles them to take unpaid, job-protected time off to care for themselves or family members.
If workers have earned paid time off, FMLA allows them to use it rather than going without a check. Robinson had acquired as much as 224 hours by early this year.
Community Medical approved Robinson’s FMLA request last year, and before it expired this summer, the company’s human resources team reached out to her and asked if she wanted to renew it. Robinson assured them that she did, and at their request, supplied them with information from her mother’s physician explaining how much time she might need.
“Her provider put in that it could be up to 40 hours a week, up to eight hours a day. This isn’t saying that this is what’s going to happen,” Robinson said. “It is just giving guidelines that, if it needs to happen, I’m able to take that time off, and it will fall under the Family Medical Leave Act so that my hours are protected and can’t be used against me as I’m taking excessive time off and be terminated from my job.”
Fear of losing employment haunted worker
Robinson feared losing her job even as she earned fresh accomplishments. Last month, for instance, one of her health centers earned the highest possible marks on two inspections, a scheduled one by the California Department of Public Health and a surprise one by the joint commission that accredits her company’s clinics.
She recalled how the auditor from the joint commission chuckled and said, “I can’t find anything that you guys are doing wrong.”
The clinic, based at Stockton’s Dorothy L. Jones Family Resource Center, was 100% compliant, Robinson said, and while other Community Medical Centers clinics also had gone through surprise inspections, none of them had earned that high a score. She managed this without the help of the two medical assistant leads who normally help her run the clinics she manages: One had gotten a promotion, and the other had taken some time off.
Despite the wins, Robinson said, her worst fear came true when she received emails from her company telling her that they could not accommodate the leave time spelled out in her intermittent FMLA and that they were placing her on an unpaid leave of absence until Sept. 20. At that time, the note said, the company would reassess how to proceed.
No one called to discuss this decision, Robinson said, and no one has yet returned her calls and emails for more information.
In a statement sent to The Bee, the company did not address Robinson’s specific case. The Department of Labor said they would need more information to determine whether Community Medical’s actions were legal.
Robinson said she was left with unanswered questions as her company email was disabled: Would she be able to pay her rent or her daughter’s college tuition? What would she do if she exhausted all her paid time off and had none left when her mother needed her to be there for eight hours or more every day?
Still, Robinson fielded staff calls for direction and, after scheduled vacation time, she said, she returned to the office because she had never requested the unpaid leave. Her teams at both clinics were relieved but surprised to see her, Robinson said, because other staff told them she’d been fired.
Undeterred, Robinson messaged her supervisor and told her that she was not on leave and had not requested to take a week off for FMLA time. Another manager had been assigned to cover her clinics, Robinson said, so she also told her manager that was unnecessary since she was back in the office.
Slowly, she said, her email was restored, and her manager welcomed her back to work.
Sarah Taft, the communications director at Community Medical, said the company, which also runs health centers in Dixon, Lodi, Manteca, Tracy, and Vacaville, offers a variety of benefits to meet the needs of its employees, including a generous holiday and paid-time-off schedule. Full-time employees can earn 56 hours of paid sick leave annually, she said.
“We welcome input on our benefits from employees and are committed to providing the support they need to thrive,” Taft said. “Improving health and well-being in our communities is our mission and it drives everything we do.”
Robinson said she hadn’t given her employer any reason to think she couldn’t handle her workload. The move to place her on unpaid leave, she said, made her keenly aware that workers could easily have their lives turned upside down in disputes over sick leave.
How much sick time do other states mandate?
So many people are in that sandwich generation, caring for both parents and kids as they try to earn a living, she said, and they need more job protection than the current three days afford them.
Proponents of SB 616 have told legislators that this is a pocketbook issue for many workers. Missing 3.5 days of work without pay equates to losing an entire family’s monthly grocery budget, they said, so those four additional days could mean the difference between putting food on the table and kids going hungry.
In California, seven cities already mandate that employers provide nine to 10 days of sick time, according to researchers at the California Budget ajnd Policy Center. They are San Diego, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville.
Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia also mandate more sick days than California does. Six require more days for all employers or soon will:
▪ Washington: One hour for every 40 hours worked
▪ New Mexico: 64 hours
▪ Colorado and Minnesota: 48 hours, the Minnesota law will go into effect in January
▪ Vermont and New Jersey: 40 hours
Six states require employers to offer 40 hours of sick time once their workforce has met or exceeded a specific number: 10 in Oregon, 11 in Massachusetts, 15 in Maryland, 18 in Rhode Island, and 50 in Connecticut and Michigan.
The number of sick days vary in two states and D.C., depending on employee headcount:
▪ New York mandates 40 hours of sick time for businesses with fewer than 100 workers and 56 hours businesses with 100-plus employees.
▪ Arizona businesses with fewer than 15 workers must offer 24 hours of sick time, but those with 15-plus have to offer 40 hours.
▪ In Washington, D.C., companies with 24 or fewer employees must provide 3 days, those with 25-99 must offer 5 days, and those with 100-plus workers have to give 7 days.
If legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom approve SB 616 as amended, California would essentially catch up with 10 of the 14 other states offering sick benefits. SB 616 passed in the Senate and must be approved in the Assembly by Sept. 14 to advance to the governor’s desk.