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California’s Pandemic Paid Sick Leave Law Expires, Leaving Workers With Only 3 Guaranteed Days Off

Childcare worker Guadalupe Lopez smiles as she stands in front of her home in Los Angeles. She has short gray hair and she is wearing a gray poncho over a multicolored blouse
Childcare worker Guadalupe Lopez in front of her Los Angeles home on September 28, 2021.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)
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During the pandemic, California law gave workers two weeks of paid sick time for reasons related to COVID-19. But after Thursday, that paid time off is going away, leaving workers with just three guaranteed paid sick days per year under state law.

Allowing the law to expire at a time when COVID-19 is still spreading has raised concerns that workers could be forced to choose between their health and their paycheck.

4:09
Concerns As California's Supplemental Paid Sick Leave Ends

Workers rights organizations have called on state lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom to extend the law. So has the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, a coalition of 10 local health departments, including L.A. County’s.

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In a letter to elected leaders, the alliance said letting the law expire poses a “public health hazard,” especially for low-wage workers and Black and Latino communities.

So far, that extension hasn’t materialized.

‘I Knew I Was Going To Get Paid’ 

Guadalupe Lopez began noticing her symptoms just before Labor Day. When her COVID-19 test came back positive, she knew she couldn’t go to her job as a teacher’s aide at an L.A. early childhood education center.

“I had to stay home,” Lopez said. “Because this virus is very contagious. And if I go back, I can pass the virus to the children.”

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She took a couple of weeks off to recover and to care for her family members, who were also home sick. Lopez was already vaccinated, and she pulled through. She said she still doesn’t feel 100%, but she was glad to not worry about losing her income.

4:09
Concerns As California's Supplemental Paid Sick Leave Ends

“I didn’t have to think about, What am I going to do about my bills? My groceries?” she said. “Because I knew I was going to get paid.”

She got paid because of California’s supplemental paid sick leave law. It hasn’t been just for workers who get sick. It could also be used to care for a sick family member, or a child sent home from school due to an outbreak.

Lopez said knowing she’d still get paid was a huge relief.

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“It's already stressful when you are sick," she said. "If you don't have the money to pay what you need to pay, it would be worse."

 A ‘now hiring’ sign hangs outside a McDonald’s location in Los Angeles.
A ‘now hiring’ sign hangs outside a McDonald’s location in Alhambra.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

State-Mandated Paid Sick Days Won’t Provide Enough Time To Quarantine

But soon, many workers in Lopez's situation won’t get that guaranteed paid time off. It’s risky to leave workers with just three state-mandated paid sick days per year, said Katherine Wutchiett, a staff attorney with Legal Aid At Work.

“Obviously, that's not enough to let people stay home as long as they need to when they have COVID-19,” she said. “This is so critical to the public health, and so common sense, that it's hard to believe that the state would let it expire at this point in the pandemic.”

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Worker advocates say employees who get sick now could end up falling behind on their rent at a time when statewide eviction protections and federal unemployment benefits are expiring.

Working moms have already been hit hard in the pandemic’s unemployment crisis, and more could lose their jobs if they can’t get childcare for kids sent home from school due to COVID-19. That’s especially true for low-wage food service and retail workers, who often have few benefits.

Wutchiett said workers won’t be the only ones affected.

“It's going to impact everybody,” she said. “When you go to the grocery store, I bet you hope that the cashier there has paid sick days, and that they didn't show up to work because they thought they wouldn't be able to pay their rent if they made the decision to stay home.”

Employers Lobbied To Let Pandemic Sick Leave Expire 

Federal tax credits that helped employers offset the cost of providing sick leave during the pandemic are also going away after Thursday. California business groups successfully lobbied to let the state’s supplemental paid sick leave law sunset at the same time.

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, said now that workers have access to safe and effective vaccines, the law isn’t needed.

“I think that employees have an incentive to get vaccinated to keep themselves safe, and that this law actually has a negative effect,” he said. “Because they know that if they do get sick, that they'll get paid time off.”

When asked about breakthrough infections of those who are vaccinated, Waldman said workers could use whatever vacation or sick days their employer voluntarily provides, or they could seek workers compensation.

“I think employers are accepting and understanding, and will work with their employees to help them,” he said. “Because a business can be shut down if there's an outbreak at the business. So having a sick worker come in hurts everybody else who works there.”

Imelda Rosales, a McDonald’s worker in the Antelope Valley who used the state’s sick leave law last year after getting COVID-19, said many workers in her industry are in the U.S. illegally, which means they don’t qualify for unemployment aid if they lose their jobs.

She said workers such as her need to stay home when they’re sick, and they shouldn’t have to make that choice knowing that it’ll cost them their paycheck.

“[The pandemic] hasn’t stopped,” Rosales said. “If this ends, it is going to be difficult for everyone, because how are they going to support themselves?”

What questions do you have about business and the economy in Southern California?
David Wagner focuses on Southern Californians getting left behind in an economy beset by soaring unemployment, pandemic-related business closures and high housing costs.