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“My biggest concern beyond safety [is] the mental load," said one mom about dealing with the stress of managing a family in the midst of a pandemic.
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My Kids Are Sick. I Need The Day Off. What Are My Rights?
Parents are stressed and no quantity of Wordles can make it better. Here are some answers to your questions about time off and sick leave.
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It is rough out here right now, especially if you are a parent of little ones. The omicron variant of COVID-19 hit hard, kids under 5 don’t have a vaccine, preschools still have to manage cases and exposures, and somehow, work continues as if all of this is normal. We’ve talked about the toll that this stage of the pandemic is taking on parents’ mental health, heard lots of your stories, and now we want to answer some of your questions.

So, if you need to take the day off to care for yourself or your kids, what CAN you do? Here’s our best shot at answering some of the top questions you might be facing if you need to take time off because of COVID-19.

(Did we miss your question? If you read this and still have questions, ask us below.)

What the law says

Wait a minute, isn’t there some kind of law where I get extra time off if I have COVID-19?

Last year, under the COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave law, California workers were allowed up to two weeks of extra sick time. That law lapsed in September of 2021, right before the omicron surge.

But now it’s back!

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Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 114, which restored supplemental sick leave. Though it took effect on February 19, it is retroactive to January 1 and lasts until September 30. This means you can request retroactive payment if you couldn’t work or experienced a school shutdown because of COVID-19 earlier this year.

Similar to the previous law, this law applies to employers with 26 or more employees and provides up to 80 hours of sick time for people who are unable to work or telework due to COVID-19. However, this law provides two 40-hour banks of sick leave. You can use the first bank of 40 hours for:

  • Caring for Yourself: If you are unable to work because of COVID-19 illness or symptoms.
  • Caring for a Family Member: If you are caring for a family member who tested positive or needs to quarantine because of COVID-19. This includes if your kid’s school or child care is shut down because of a COVID-19 exposure. 
  • Vaccine-Related: You or a family member you care for need to take time off to get a vaccine or can’t work because of vaccine-related side effects.

You can use the second bank of 40 hours just if you or a family member you’re caring for tested positive for COVID-19. The law works a little differently if you work part time.

Katherine Wutchiett is a staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, who runs a free, confidential helpline where her team answers people's questions about how to take time off without sacrificing their jobs and income. She says that without sufficient sick leave, families often have had to face tough questions like, if I can't work, am I not going to get paid? And if I miss work without pay, am I going to lose my job?

This law is a step in addressing some of those concerns, though if you work at a small business of 25 people or less, unfortunately these benefits don’t apply to you.

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In the previous supplemental sick leave law, the federal government also provided a tax credit to reimburse employers for this extra sick leave, to help businesses cover their costs. When restoring supplemental paid sick leave, California did not pass legislation that would match this previous federal benefit. According to Bianca Blomquist, senior policy manager for California policy for Small Business Majority, nationally, around 70% of small business owners and operators support policies that would provide partial wage replacement for medical leave and caring for an ill family member. However, in tandem with SB 144, Newsom did sign SB 113, which provides $6.1 billion in tax credits, grants and other relief for small businesses, including nearly $500 million in tax cuts for restaurants and shuttered venues.

Getting days off

How else can I take a day off? What are my rights under current law?

In addition to COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave, California state law mandates three guaranteed paid sick days. This is what is usually available, pandemic or no pandemic.

Three days is the minimum required by state law, though your employer can offer more. And some cities have sick leave laws with different provisions. For example, in Los Angeles, employees qualify for six days (up to 48 hours) of sick time. People can also use this time to care for “chosen family.” In Santa Monica, sick time depends on the size of your workplace.

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Look up what type of sick leave is available in the specific city or state where you live.

You can use this sick leave in addition to the two weeks forthcoming under restored supplemental paid sick leave law.

I think it's really important for people to know that it's their right [to use paid leave].
— Jenya Cassidy, California Work and Family Coalition

You can use sick leave if you are ill, but you can also use it for things like:

  • Preventative care, like taking a child to be vaccinated 
  • Caring for your child if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed at school
  • Caring for family members, like children, parents, grandparents, and domestic partners
  • Mental health — there isn’t a requirement to use it just for physical illness
  • Specified purposes if you are a victim of domestic violence

Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work and Family Coalition, says it’s important for people to know they have a right to take sick leave. “It's like its own kind of mini safety net in a country that doesn't have very many safety nets,” Cassidy said.

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She says she’s heard stories, like that of a carwash employer who told their employees that they don’t get paid sick leave — but that’s not how the law works. And if you work in a restaurant, you don’t have to trade shifts with a co-worker. You, too, can use sick leave. It’s also important to note that sick leave is available regardless of immigration status.

Aside from paid time off, you can also take unpaid time off with the assurance that your job will be protected under the Family School Partnership Act. With this time, you can request to participate in school or daycare activities, like finding a new school or daycare, attending school functions, or to deal with a school or child care provider emergency.

Under this law, you can use up to 40 hours a year and your employer will not be able to lay you off. It’s limited to eight hours a month, except in the case of an emergency. If your child’s school is closed because of COVID-19, that would be a circumstance in which you could use the entire 40 hours in one month.

And don’t forget — you also have the right to a safe workplace, which includes special pandemic guidelines that were just updated this month.

Need more information? Use California’s interactive site that helps you navigate what laws apply to your scenario. (If it doesn’t work the first time, try loading it in another browser.) Or you can look at them all neatly color-coded on one page.

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What if I need more time?

I’m taking care of someone really sick with COVID and I need even more time off. What can I do?

If you are seriously ill with COVID-19 or are caring for a loved one who is, you may qualify for leave that will allow you to take extended time off.

Katherine Wutchiett of Legal Aid at Work says COVID-19 qualifies as a serious health condition if it results in inpatient care, or continuing treatment or supervised care by a healthcare provider. It can also qualify as a serious health condition if it leads to conditions like pneumonia.

If you do qualify, there are two pieces of this: job protection and paid leave.

For job protection, you’re entitled to 12 weeks of protected leave under the California Family Rights Act. This law doesn’t include pay, but it does mean you can’t get fired while you take time off to care for a seriously ill family member.

The law changed last year to allow people to care for a wider range of family members, including children, parents, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, domestic partners, and spouses. The law had previously applied to workplaces with at least 50 employees, but now you qualify to take time off if your workplace has at least five employees.

To get paid during this time, you can use California’s paid family leave program, which lasts for eight weeks and provides 60-70% of your income. This benefit is available to any California worker, regardless of immigration status. It’s a program that all employees pay into, so it’s 100% funded by employees. You do need a doctor’s note to get approval.

A few other things that might apply to you:

  • If you got COVID while on the job, you may be eligible for workers compensation, which would pay for your medical bills and can provide up to 100% of your salary, permanently. (Workers compensation is available regardless of immigration status, though undocumented workers may not get all benefits.)
  • If you are unable to work because you’re dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, including “long COVID,” you may be able to apply for Disability Insurance, which gives you 60-70% of one year’s wages. COVID-19 is considered a disability when you are unable to work and losing wages because of a pregnancy or an illness/injury you get outside of work. (Disability insurance is available regardless of immigration status.)
  • If you’ve lost your job or your hours have been cut, you might qualify for Unemployment Insurance. But buckle in, since California’s been notoriously slow in processing these claims, as my colleague David Wagner has reported. (Unemployment insurance is not available to undocumented employees.)

Does your brain hurt? Mine does. As my friend and former colleague at the UCLA Labor Center Tia Koonse says, “It’s amazing what we make people an expert in — just to go to work and not die.”

One easy way to figure out what laws apply to your scenario is to use California’s interactive navigator. (If it doesn’t work the first time, try loading it in another browser.) Thanks also to Legal Aid at Work for this color-coded graphic.

Flexible hours

I can’t get time off, but can I get some flexibility at work?

You can also get creative. If you want to continue working, but adjust your work conditions to make things easier for yourself and your family, you might be able to ask for other accommodations.

“Even if the law doesn't require a particular leave or accommodation that an employee may want, it may be in the employer's best interest to work with that employee to achieve a solution that's going to keep that employee on board,” said Thomas Lenz, partner at the law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

Cassidy says employers have been more willing to allow work from home during COVID times. Depending on the job, you could ask to be able to flex your time so that the work hours fall at times that are convenient for caring for your kids.

And if you have a disability due to long COVID or otherwise, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act says that your employer has to provide reasonable accommodation for you to perform the essential duties of your job.

Koonse says you can propose accommodation specific to your job and disability. They can be things like teleworking, switching from a position at the register to a position in the back of the stockroom, or if you job that usually requires standing, you can ask for a seat.

How to make the request

How should I ask my boss for time off?

Well, for starters, these things are key:

  • Get it in writing.  It's fine to request leave over the phone or in person, but follow up in writing. That way you have a record of your conversation.
  • Include the details. Make sure you include the dates you anticipate needing leave, when you expect to be able to return to work, and the reason you are not able to work. 
  • Name drop the law. It can be helpful to include the name of the law or laws that provide the leave you’re requesting. That way, says Wutchiett, if the employer is unfamiliar with the law, they can look it up.
It’s against the law for people to treat people worse because they try to assert any of these rights
— Katherine Wutchiett, staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work

And to finesse the conversation …

  • It can help to give as much notice as you can. For example, notify your employer as soon as you get word of a school closure to allow for more flexibility in changing shifts or assignments.
  • It can be helpful to rehearse. Run your email or text by a friend to double check it. It can make you feel more prepared.
  • Cassidy says sometimes it’s good to take a buddy. She's seen it work with people who are talking to their employer about lactation accommodations. Also, approach your supervisor in a friendly way to educate them. You know your boss, so you probably have a good idea about what approach would work best.

Most importantly, says Wutchiett, remember: “It’s against the law for people to treat people worse because they try to assert any of these rights.”

Following the law

What if my employer tells me something incorrect or does something that’s against the law?

It may be that your boss is unfamiliar with the law and a friendly share of links and educational materials can help.

However, if your boss is insistent that you can’t use sick leave (or if you don’t receive minimum wage, meal and rest breaks, or tips), you may be dealing with a case of wage theft. You can file a wage claim with the California Labor Commissioner’s office. You may also file a complaint for exclusion pay violations to Cal/OSHA.

Helping an employee

I’m a manager and my employee is coming to me stressed out because of their young kids. What’s the best way to help them?

This is a challenging time for employers. What's become known as “The Great Resignation” is leading many people to reconsider their careers, and there’s a shortage of employees generally. Many employers are understaffed and regulations are changing by the day.

Lenz heads the labor division of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo and works with a wide variety of businesses and public entities. He says that in these trying times, relationships have been strained and it’s important for employers to focus on open communication.

“I'm telling employers, we need to listen to each other, we need to really take time not to just announce rules, and to tell people how things are going to be, but also to be prepared to listen to what's going on with their employees,” he says. “And it's actually a positive thing if an employee is going to come to you and tell you what's going on, because … that means that they trust you and they're looking for your help.”

It's actually a positive thing if an employee is going to come to you and tell you what's going on, because … that means that they trust you and they're looking for your help.
— Thomas Lenz, partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo

He says employers need to stay tuned at the local level for rules so that they enter into a conversation aware of their obligations. Some good resources for employers include the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM); government websites like the California Department of Industrial Relations, California Employment Development Department; and local websites like City of Los Angeles, City of Santa Monica, and City of Pasadena.

If your company uses an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), this can be a resource to provide mental health, dependent care, and conflict resolution services to your employees. Human Resources Professionals Association and National Human Resources Association — Los Angeles are also helpful to stay up to date on HR matters.

In addition, for small businesses, Small Business Majority hosts policy and technical support events and webinars.

Small businesses should also know that they can receive a grant of $500 for each employee who uses the paid family leave program. The Paid Family Leave Small Business Grant is for small businesses with fewer than 10 employees, and offers $500 for each employee who uses paid family leave, up to a total of $4,500 per small business.

Feeling overwhelmed

More of a comment than a question: I'm just so mad and tired.

If all of this is seeming like it’s a little too much, I feel you. And no, you are not imagining it. It’s a mess.

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about it, see LAist’s guide to finding mental health support.

And if you’re the kind of person who finds solace in apocalyptic thinking, Darby Saxbe, associate professor in the department of psychology at USC, says that there’s some hope in us seeing our systems completely blow it.

“When everything sort of falls apart at the same time, there's opportunity for reflection and new beginnings,” she says. “And I think we're at this sort of critical moment where if we don't invest in our care infrastructure, if we don't support families with things like paid family leave, with better education funding, with better child care infrastructure, we will collapse.”

In other words, it’s a wake-up call.

Pushing for change

None of this is good enough. What can I do to change things?

There are lots of ways to make your voice heard about your concerns as a parent.

Wutchiett says that if you have a union, you can check with them to see if your contract includes other benefits. Your union will likely also be able to tell you where you can share your story for it to make an impact. (For example: With your friendly local public media organization.)

Also, talk to your local and state representatives. If it feels intimidating, know this: it’s literally their job to listen to you. Learn about the basics of how Los Angeles government works and different ways to make your voice heard.

If you want to team up with others to make the process easier, you can plug into one of the many organizations working on these issues.

Cassidy says that through her organization, the California Work and Family Coalition, the issue of paid sick leave has been resonating with Californians. She says that the group recently sent an email to their list of 4,500 people and nearly a third who received it clicked through to contact their representative about extending COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave. There are options on the coalition’s site for how to participate.

Regardless of how you get involved, doing something can help provide some peace of mind. Says Cassidy, “It can be very satisfying, when you're frustrated about something, to at least know that you're doing what you can.”

Early Childhood Reporter Mariana Dale contributed to this story. Carlo Giovanni and John Braden of Southern California Public Radio’s Human Resources department also offered guidance.

What questions do you have about the coronavirus and/or how it’s affecting your life in Southern California?

Corrected January 27, 2022 at 10:12 AM PST
This article previously misstated the level of workers compensation available to immigrants who are undocumented.